Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” puts prayer, paint, bronze, and gold trim to the idea that “Black Lives Matter.” His exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is breathtaking, moving, and important to see. Imagine oil paintings of young black men that “canonize” them as saints and kings. Imagine black busts in bronze on white marble pedestals of the dudes you know from the neighborhood--that is, if your neighborhood is like mine. I live between 125th St. and Sugar Hill in Harlem. My neighborhood is filled with a manifold of black men-- young and old, varying brown skin tones, styles and professions, distinguished by their hats and pants and leans and stands and varying sets of intellect. They are a multitude of accents and outfits, families and characters, some with sagging pants, baseball caps to the left, jogging suits, business suits, dapper-dans and whatever daywear is donned by “the ordinary every-day black man.” The “black man” who travels up and down the blocks of my life, your life, and his own, and who, in his essence, is just a human being, nothing to be afraid of-- until he is magnified into a stereotype, a disturbing newsclip, or is once again the eminent center of vulnerability and protest because the worth of his life is still as 'questionable' as it has always been. Kehinde Wiley immortalizes these very men in “A New Republic.” With bronze busts of grandeur, stained-glass windows, and bold oil paintings that are as big as 20 feet wide and 10 feet high. The show features fourteen years of Kehinde’s work-- a greatly celebrated career that compounds his Nigerian and African-American roots with degrees from The San Francisco Art Institute, Yale University, as well as legendary ties to the Studio Museum of Harlem, and Thelma Golden’s curation of the “Black Male: Representations of Black Masculinity in Contemporary Art” at the Whitney. His show brazenly and boldly paints the “black man” as its central figure, one that is owed a prayer, one whose saintly protection should be sought out, one who is worthy of the same monumental reverence and religious respect owed to the leading political and spiritual icons of the Byzantine Empire. Kehinde literally re-paints, re-sculpts, and thus replaces the pompous busts and illustrious oil paintings of ancient Europe and re-establishes each figure with any one of a number of black men enrobed in hoodies, tattoos, sagging camouflage pants, and branded by Sean John. Yes, with paint brush in hand-- the artistic giant indelibly marks history with P-Diddy’s signature on a jogging suit in one of his regal portraits. The blonde hair, blue eyes, and religious robes of Saint John the Baptist, the Archangel Gabriel, and Saint Gregory are wiped away and replaced with afro-centric waves, fros, and street-gear. The marble versions of Julius Ceasar and Augustus are beheaded and replaced with black men in afros adorned with picks and crowned by the royalty of their sneakers. King Phillip II of Spain is now forever recoated as Michael Jackson on a white horse being tended to by angelic babes, and pondered upon by the masses who flock to Kehinde’s show and are moved to tears and raving facebook posts of how “changed” they are from seeing Wiley’s work. So isn’t is apropo that Kehinde’s paintings would also make cameos on the hottest new black-American fable, “Empire?” They hang regally on the fictitious walls of Luscious Lyon’s mansion, a character loosely based on every proverbial hip-hop music producer we’ve ever known. Besides the prayer-book paintings set above church-like kneelers in a solemn room at the rear of the exhibition, the tall stained-glass windows featured in the rotunda moved me most of all. This is where Kehinde creates the swiftest strokes for reimagining and where he delivers the most retro-afrofuturistic blows to art history of my own “everyday life.” In the rotunda, a lifetime of all the blue-eyed saints and angels I’ve ever seen on stained-glass windows growing up Catholic in New Orleans, are now accompanied by beatified images of black men who resemble those we’ve known personally and have loved. Kehinde offers us new saints to adore and be devoted to, ones that look like Travyon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, my husband, my brother, my cousin Squirrel, my nephew Troy. Merited tears well up in my eyes after the rotunda in the museum. I get the rare gratification of actually being moved by a piece of art in a museum. I must have been grieving from a lifetime of never seeing such images. Here “the black man” is framed in sunny florals, rosy-reds, bright-yellows and greens that suggest whimsy, happiness, glee. He is untroubled here, presented as a deity to be adored. His “smile” is literally duplicated, repeated, and rolling on a loop. Until you are surrounded by wall after wall of massive, holy depictions of “him” like these, you can’t realize how much we’ve all thirsted for this kind of holy heist and sanctuary.
By Melanie Maria Goodreaux