Image: Kehinde Wiley’s Femme Piquée par un Serpent (2008) at the Brooklyn Museum
Jessica Dawson recently reviewed Kehinde Wiley’s mid-career retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (which runs through May 24) for the Village Voice. Jillian Steinhauer of Hyperallergic characterized the review as “startlingly homophobic and racist," and called it "one of the most bizarre and poor excuses for art criticism I’ve read in a very long time.” After taking Dawson to task for describing Wiley’s method of meeting his portrait subject as “predatory,” Steinhauer writes that “there is something about the sexualization of black men that offends or frightens Dawson.”
From the vagueness of her writing and the broadness of her generalizations, it’s hard to tell if it’s the “sexualization” or the “black men” part. Her writing about the central premise of Wiley’s work—to insert ordinary black people into paintings that mimic the grandeur of historical, and historically white, portraits—is just as problematic and offensive as the aspersions she casts on his process. Consider:
Where once was a powerful white man, Wiley inserts a firm piece of African-American flesh. Where white power aggrandized itself in official state portraiture, now young blacks from the ghetto, the ones newspaper headlines insist are without future and en route to incarceration, straddle stallions. What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon? If it isn’t dangling a fantasy and false hope, then at least it implies that young urban blacks are in desperate need of uplift. You call that empowerment?
It’s almost hard to know where to start unpacking a passage so brimming with barely veiled racism! First, we have the reduction of African Americans to their sexualized bodies (“a firm piece of African-American flesh”). Second, the assumption that all the subjects come “from the ghetto,” because, you know, they wear sneakers and Wiley found them on the street. Third, the connotation that all those “newspaper headlines” are being so dramatic by insisting that this country has a major problem with mass incarceration. And then there’s the kicker: the assertion that it is a “fantasy and false hope” to suggest that young black men should aspire to, let alone might ever achieve, positions of power. Wow.
Read Dawson original review here, and Steinhauer’s critical response here. Then let us know what you think. Is Wiley’s work in the exhibition lurid and offensive, or is Dawson the offensive one? We’re especially curious to hear from folks who’ve visiting the exhibition.