Spotlight — Selections from Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Israel
at Skirball Cultural Center (Through 2 September 2018)
Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch
Replete with royal, religious, and luscious floral imagery, Los Angeles-born painter Kehinde Wiley’s Old Master-inspired portraits not only subvert art historical tradition but also notions of power and cultural identity. Renowned for depicting traditionally underrepresented figures, typically African and African-American men, the artist envelopes these empowered subjects in Eurocentric symbols of status and wealth. With the unveiling of Wiley’s noble yet vibrant portrait of former President Barack Obama earlier this year, the timing of the Skirball Center’s Spotlight—Selections from Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Israel could not feel more apropos. This intimate presentation delves into the artist’s photorealistic oeuvre through two monumental paintings, each depicting young Ethiopian men living in Israel.
Wiley originally crafted these two vivid, richly detailed paintings in 2011 as part of his celebrated World Stage series. Underscoring issues of diversity and multiculturalism, this collection focuses on individual nations through revealing and stately portraits of their citizenry. With incarnations in Nigeria and Senegal (2008), Brazil (2009), India and Sri Lanka (2010), Israel (2011), France (2012), Jamaica (2013), and Haiti (2014), the artist wholeheartedly rebuffs harmful stereotypes here
The artist bathes his Israel-centric portraits in themes of marginalization, elitism, and social role reversal à la Kerry James Marshall. Due to their seemingly effortless fusion of contemporary and age-old references, these paintings possess a timeless quality. Our protagonists, who posed for the artist during his month-long stay there in 2010, are not stuffy aristocrats but blossoming, energetic, and dashing young men sporting thoroughly modern graphic t-shirts. The viewer soon comes to realize that this juxtaposition of old and new is not merely limited to the subjects, but extends to the country at large.
As a global melting pot and ancient locale, Israel not only serves as a central hub for the world’s most prominent monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also houses a plethora of international communities. The viewer here is provided a tantalizing glimpse into daily life in Tel Aviv’s Ethiopian Jewish community and its neighboring Jewish-Arab city of Lod. Far from the calamitous violence frequently seen on the news, Wiley portraits present a utopian vision of peaceful coexistence.
We witness this harmony through the subjects’ blissful union with nature and faith. In Benediter Brkou, a blindingly vivacious canvas of oil and gold enamel, the central figure confidently poses amidst a verdant background with Hebrew text and undulating vines. Akin to a medieval illuminated manuscript, here we see religion and the natural world coalesce in sumptuous serenity.
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