In conjunction with Dr. John Bowles’ ARTH 287 and ARTH 387 classes, six works by contemporary African-American artists are on view now through Sunday, May 10th, in the Study Gallery on the second floor of the Ackland. Perhaps the most eye-popping in its resoluteness and arresting color is Idrissa Ndiaye, a study in oil on paper by Kehinde Wiley.
Undoubtedly, Wiley is having a cultural moment: the 37-year-old artist is enjoying his first retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, and numerous examples of his work can be spotted on the set of Fox’s breakout new show “Empire.” Figurative, dramatic, and bombastically colorful, his art has all the necessary ingredients to be readily accessible to modern audiences.
Yet despite its immediate vivacity, below the surface Wiley’s art is deeply confrontational. He deals directly with stereotypical conceptions of African and African-American identity, both in modern culture and the history of art. His works usually follow a similar formula: a black figure, dressed in modern street clothes, stands heroically against a sumptuously decorative background. The figure gazes directly down at the viewer with an air of impassiveness and regality as baroque ornamentation swirls around him.
To find subjects for his paintings, Wiley often recruits men directly from the streets of Harlem, bringing them into his studio to photograph them. These photographs then serve to guide his paintings. Models are chosen for their clothes, their attitude, and their hyper-masculinity: “This imagined black American maleness as we’ve seen reproduced over and over again,” as Wiley puts it.1 He has repeated this method in Jamaica, Haiti, New Delhi, and elsewhere, creating a sort of global pictorial census he called “The World’s Stage.” Idrissa Ndiaye is a sitter from Senegal.
Often, Wiley’s portraits are subversive riffs on well-known paintings from the past, combined with a Warhol-like exuberance for popular culture; commissioned by VH1, he painted the rapper Ice T as Napoleon Bonaparte in a play on Ingres’ famous coronation painting. By inserting black figures into the great masterpieces of colonial empires, Wiley indicts the overwhelming “whiteness” of the Western canon. What results is a series of explicit juxtapositions, between old and new, fantasy and reality, and what is considered nominally high and low culture.
Wiley’s painting provides an interesting counterpoint to another prominent African-American artist whose work is on display in the Study Gallery: Glenn Ligon. Both artists produce metaphor-laced work with strong references to black culture and historical antecedents. But while Wiley uses Renaissance portraiture as his point of departure, Ligon works from a framework of modernist abstraction to explore the polemics of race and subjugation more soberly.
Ligon is best known for his text-based art, often featuring quotations by prominent black voices including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Richard Pryor. The Ackland has recently acquired four well-known works on paper by Ligon: Untitled, now on view in the Study Gallery. Two, often seen as a pair, include excerpts from the writings of Zora Neale Hurston stenciled repeatedly in thick, black ink on white linen. The chromatic choice is a clear reinforcement of the text: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” taken from Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.” As the eye moves down the print, the text becomes more difficult to read and eventually descends into an unintelligible cacophony of black marks. The second pair of prints, in black ink on black linen, quotes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and is nearly impossible to read from the start: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….”
How are we meant to interpret these works? Is one’s “coloredness” amplified or conversely subdued depending on the background? As Darby English has stated, Ligon’s work “point[s] up the semantics of blackness without succumbing to the redundancy of merely reproducing the black body.”2 Without a figurative composition or clear narrative, the ambiguity of Untitled stems largely from the interpretation of its “I” statements. Is this a “memorialization” (and therefore tacit endorsement) of Hurston’s and Ellison’s words or is Ligon, a black man, speaking for his own experiences and racial identity?
None of these questions are answered easily, and the art of both Wiley and Ligon is meant to elicit serious, and perhaps unresolvable, thoughts on racial representation, identity, assumption, and repression. I invite you to visit the Study Gallery and encounter these powerful works for yourself.
Phillip Cox is a junior art history and advertising major, and an undergraduate intern at the Ackland Art Museum.
1 Kehinde Wiley as quoted in “Celebration and Critique” by Sarah E. Lewis. Kehinde Wiley. New York: Rizzoli, 2012. 90.
2 Darby English “Glenn: Ligon: Committed to Difficulty” from Glenn Ligon – Some Changes. Toronto: Power Plant, 2005. 54.
Kehinde Wiley, American, born 1977: Idrissa Ndiaye (study), 2007; oil wash on paper. Sheet: 30 x 23 in. (76.2 x 58.4 cm). Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund, 2008.7.
Glenn Ligon, American, born 1960: Untitled, 1992; etchings. Pending purchase from Charles M. Young Fine Prints and Drawings, LLC, TC 327.1.