Wiley's Latest World Stage Project

He cast beauty pageants in Haiti to find his subjects

Roberts & Tilton, Sept 13 - Oct 25, 2014, Culver City, CA

“Right now our deepest challenge has to do with evoking a vocabulary that is just as effective at being free as it is at being bound" — Kehinde Wiley

    Kehinde Wiley, The Sisters Zenaide and Charlotte Bonaparte (The World Stage: Haiti) 2014, oil on canvas 83.85 x 62.99Kehinde Wiley made this frank admission to IRAAA in 2005. At that time when the culturati were still ruminating about the “post black” concept, Wiley straddled the fence, affirming the strength of the black-identified subject in art while implying that black artists should make an equally strong impact in the world beyond.  ("The Rising Generation & The Pleasures of Freedom, IRAAA, vol. 20, no. 2).

With his "World Stage Project" series, Wiley has done just that and in his own way. 

Starting out with baroque backdrops for his portraiture of boyz in the hood, the artist set forth to search the world for new ornamental motifs. In "World Stage: China," for example, Wiley drew from Imperial-era Chinese textile patterns and poses from Communist propaganda posters but retained his young, black male subjects.

For "World Stage: Africa," he incorporated patterns from African Dutch wax print textiles and poses from African sculpture into his elaborate portraits.

Kehinde Wiley, Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel), 2011, oil and gold enamel on canvas, 95.75 x 71.75.” Courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CAThen, moving beyond the obviously identifiable, black subject in "The World Stage: Israel" (2011-2012), Wiley portrayed more ethnically diverse young men against backgrounds of traditional Jewish textiles and heraldry. “The World Stage” series has also visited Jamaica, France, Brazil and India/Sri Lanka.

Now Wiley unveils The World Stage: Haiti at Roberts & Tilton, his fifth show at the gallery.  As with previous World Stage installments, Wiley examines a nation's socioeconomic conditions and culture through the everyday lives of its people, always in the context of the issue of advancing globalization.

Kehinde Wiley Venus at Paphos (The World Stage: Haiti), 2014, oil on canvas, 60 x 48,” Courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CAIn the minds of most, Haiti has never sparked quick associations with tranquility or beauty or vacation travel. On the contrary, its modern history, fraught with poverty and corruption and ravaged by a devastating natural disaster, relegated it to seemingly perpetual, "poorest country in the Western hemisphere" status. However, Kehinde Wiley found beauty in Haiti bringing it to the forefront by creating his own beauty pageants, in the long tradition of pageant culture native to the region.

For previous "World Stage" iterations, Wiley conducted his casting for subjects to pose for the paintings on the streets. With "The World Stage: Haiti," he employed a different approach specific to the culture: open calls on the radio, posters around the streets of Jacmel, Jalouise and Port-au-Prince culminating in beauty pageants. Across the Caribbean, pageants serve as mass entertainment events, allowing locals to do more than exhibit poise, talent and physical beauty; pageants are a manifestation of collective cultural values. Wiley's pageant winners were chosen randomly rather than through a judging process. By showing the pageant contestants paintings of European masters on which the new works would be based, Wiley deepened the connection between both place and era.

Haiti's colonial past, under Spanish and French rule before Toussaint’s revolt, figures strongly in Wiley's current body of work. He draws from the art history of those colonizing powers, summoning parallels across time and geography. Likewise, Haiti's rich and varied religious traditions, as well as its traditional crafts and decorative arts, inform Wiley's modern chronicle of life and culture. The backgrounds of the paintings incorporate images of vegetation found on Haiti such as okra, brought first to the island from Africa, and sugarcane, a food product that was broadly exploited as a cash crop during slavery.

The accompanying book includes essays by M. Cynthia Oliver, PhD and Mike Rogge with distribution by DAP. The film, Kehinde Wiley The World Stage: Haiti, charting the artist's journey to Haiti, will be screened at gallery for the course of the exhibition.

Kehinde WileyWiley is collaborating with The Lapis Press to publish a print from "The World Stage: Haiti" to benefit Ciné Institute, Haiti’s only film school. The Institute’s goal is to educate Haitian artists in film and sound engineering to retain their culture and create artwork, which reflects Haitian history and culture.  For additional information regarding Ciné Institute, see the following link. Print edition details forthcoming.  

In February 2015, Kehinde Wiley's A New Republic, a mid-career retrospective exhibition, will open at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and then travel to multiple venues.

He also is currently working on a monumental painting commission with ART in Embassies for the new US Embassy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.