This summer, while I was living in the Bay Area, I visited a few of the art museums of San Francisco. I hadn’t really spent a lot of time in San Francisco before this summer, but the city and its elegant fog, visible through its hilly streets and the dark blue of the bay, grew on me. On one of these summer days in San Francisco, I went to the De Young Museum with a friend who liked to talk about art.
After a short stroll around the Golden Gate Park, I found myself at the modern entrance of the museum that felt very integrated with nature. From there, we started our visit with an exhibition that captured me so intensely that I still think about it months later: Kehinde Wiley’s “An Archaeology of Silence.”
As we entered the room, I was immediately captured by the power of these paintings: large pieces of art illuminated powerfully, standing in glory against the dark burgundy background. The room and the paintings felt heavy as a first impression. It was almost as if it was hard to process them: the vibrant colors, the floral patterns of the background that catch your eye with their aestheticism, how majestic in size they are, and more importantly, the people Kehinde drew, the expressions of their faces, how real they feel and the way their bodies were positioned, poses of lying down with tiredness and relaxation.
The first painting that welcomed us into the room was that of a Black man lying down on a bed, dressed up with street clothes, eyes closed, with a blue background and white flowers everywhere. He looked and felt so real that I felt disturbed, as if we were intruding on this man during a private act. His face gave me the impression that he was very tired, and now he got to rest. His clothes made him feel like he was just a normal person. I had thought to myself, this must be what juxtaposition is — the flowers, this posture, this bed, in this museum in San Francisco — everything about it is unexpected.
Struck by this visual experience, I had turned to read the description of the exhibition from the walls: “Kehinde Wiley has dedicated his artistic career to uplifting the beauty and power of Black people…” and he did so by depicting Black people in settings of conventional Western art. In his new work, Wiley chooses to go against the conventional form of vertical portraits and explores horizontality; thus, his figures are often lying down.
“His horizontal Black figures, in often ambiguous states of pain, grief, sleep or death, reference iconic Western paintings and sculptures of fallen heroes, lovers, martyrs or saints — conjuring pain and ecstasy, suffering and transcendence. Wiley explores the European tradition of eroticizing the martyred body” to create a new level of connection with the violence against Black people, while demonstrating the vulnerability of Black people to challenge the concept of Black masculinity.
As we continued to walk around the room, I kept telling my friend how intense all of these paintings felt. Intense. If I am to pick one word to describe this exhibition, this room and all the feelings these paintings induced in me, I would use the word intense.
As we turned to look around, I came across a painting of a Black woman, lying down on what had seemed like a couch covered with a white sheet. She was wearing jeans, a lacey summer top and white sneakers, giving the sense that she was someone ordinary. The background was filled with white leaves, with colorful flowers dispersed around. This was a painting of contrasts: she wasn’t fitting in very well to the surrounding white layers, contrasting with her modern style. But what had pulled my attention the most was her facial expression: this figure was staring deeply into me with disturbance, almost asking me to leave with her eyes. I felt annoyance and tiredness in her face, as if life had taken a toll on her, and she was not happy, and all she wanted was peace and quiet. This painting disorients its viewer with utmost artistic ability.
We walked around the gallery, coming across disorienting yet beautiful figures that captured you with their poses and expressions, lying down or sitting against the elegant floral backgrounds. The figures were massive, at the scale of live humans, which made this visual experience even more striking. There was this painting of a Black man lying down, and this painting was particularly large, to the point where I couldn’t take my eyes off his face; it was so real: the curves, the lines and the shadows of his face… The level of realism Wiley is able to achieve is simply unmatched.
There were paintings where the figures’ eyes were closed and their arms dispersed, making the viewer question if they were alive. Some of them reminded me of David’s “The Death of Marat,” which is perhaps what the world thinks of when they think about the depiction of a martyr in art.
We then continued to explore the remaining exhibitions in the museum, seeing significant pieces of American impressionism and beautiful sculptures, but my mind was still under the influence of Kehinde Wiley’s work. I asked my friend if we could go back to the room of Wiley’s paintings. I wanted the feelings from looking at these artworks to last, so we went back, to be immersed under this visual effect again, and again.
It turned out that we had missed a room. There was a room with a gigantic statue depicting a Black man falling down from a horse. Reading the walls, we had learnt that it was a reference to the confederate statues that got removed from public spaces, depicting white men standing upright on horses. By depicting a Black man falling down, Wiley creates an intense contrast, perhaps emphasizing Black vulnerability while questioning positions of power.
This exhibition perhaps signifies what art should be: it should capture its viewers, make us think about the world and our societies, make us question our beliefs and realities. It is an interesting question to ask if art should be political or not. I don’t think it should be political for the sake of being political, but when it comes in such elegant forms, where the artistic ability itself is the root cause that disorients the viewer, it becomes very powerful.
Then again, I also enjoy looking at pieces of art that don’t disorient me, but are simply beautiful to look at, or carry a historical significance that mesmerizes me. Art can have a lot of purposes and meanings, but it can also be a powerful way of impacting people, and a way of changing people’s perspectives. Months later, I still go back to thinking about this exhibition. Reflecting on the genius of the artist, I realize how glorious Kehinde Wiley’s works are, which makes me notice the capacity of art in becoming so powerful. Powerful, in a sense that through a visual facade, it takes you under its influence and changes the way you think about the world.