Artist Kehinde Wiley’s A New Republic offers a way to think about art and history as reflections on public culture.
My longest held memory of the brown-cassocked St. Anthony is of that time on a school holiday when my grandmother made me kneel in front of the altar because I had stayed out longer than usual. She had frantically been asking of passers-by if they had seen her errant grandson. Oblivious, I sauntered back home and was promptly dragged to the shrine in her room. “Tell St. Anthony you’re sorry”, she ordered. Later, I would come to realise that the dear old lady, like so many Catholic Goans, held the tonsured Franciscan in such high esteem for the faith she placed in him as the finder of lost things, naughty lads included. A couple of weeks ago in the American city of Richmond, I encountered St. Anthony again at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, and he looked very different from my childhood memory.
In Wiley’s canvas, “Anthony of Padua” (2013), he is a young Black man with closely cropped hair. He wears an octopus pendant on a chain and is adorned in a military green jacket with patches. One of these decorative circles bears the image of a snarling black panther, a symbol suggestive of the Black Power movement of 1960s’ America. Cradled in the crook of his left arm is a book instead of the Child Jesus. His raised right hand holds a rod in place of the traditional stalk of lilies. In this pose, it is as if the saint is a painter, with palette and brush, taking in his subject. Behind him, flowers swirl, some of them encircling his waist, others set in relief against his teal-coloured trousers. Through it all, no Jesus to behold, the modern-day Anthony looks upon his viewers with an expression of deep composure. Haughtiness, even. His gaze breaks the fourth wall between the dramatic portrait and its spectators, between the exalted and the mundane.
Reminiscent of the methods of Goan painter Angelo da Fonseca (1902-1967), the American Wiley employs ordinary people as subjects in depicting themes that evoke the Renaissance, French Rococo, and other Western periods of art, as well as European Christian iconography. Where da Fonseca used South Asian models, including his wife Ivy, to render Christian imagery, Wiley’s muses of choice are everyday Black Americans. In both cases, these artists’ works subvert Eurocentric conceptions of the sacred, by challenging implicit assumptions of race and class in the idealisation of the divine. Moreover, their images alter public culture by demonstrating that the faithful come in many hues and from various economic backgrounds, for the icons in their art are just regular folk. If such art is to be taken as political statement, then Wiley’s reverential presentation of Blackness resonates powerfully with the Black Lives Matter movement in today’s United States where serious questions are being asked about the police killings of Black men and women.
Wiley’s St. Anthony is inspired by the representation of the saint in the 1842-1843 stained glass window created by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres for the Chapelle St. Ferdinand in Porte des Ternes, Paris. Christian imagery appears elsewhere in Wiley’s oeuvre, including in his own stained glass windows, which again characterise young Black men in contemporary garb as saints. At the Virginia exhibition, museum patrons would have walked through a dark chapel-like gallery, where these back-lit windows and other elements of iconography would have been on display. They would then emerge into a brightly lit space where they would witness various canvasses from the artist’s World Stage series, including pieces from his Indian and Sri Lankan collections.
In Kehinde Wiley – The World Stage: India-Sri Lanka (2011), critic Gayatri Sinha wonders if Wiley’s South Asian works challenge orientalised notions of the region, but concludes that he “instead pushes for a different dimension of recognition”, especially because the artist “takes young men of the street and accord[s] them a heroic cast … [A]ny one of them could be an unemployed youth familiar from the streets of Bombay or Bangalore. Or they could be Goa’s beach boys, car cleaners from the streets of Tamil Nadu, or young advisasis (tribals) serving in the capital’s diplomatic enclave” (pp. 7-8). To say that Sinha lets slip her class and caste biases would be to state the obvious. Indeed, what Sinha fails to acknowledge is the very divide that Wiley seeks to breach in placing paintings of young men of the street, beach boys, car cleaners, and “tribals” in the elite (or is that elitist?) spaces of the art gallery and the museum. In saying that these subjects are recognisable, Sinha implies their objectification by the Indian art patron. This othering is intensified when the critic does not question why Wiley’s subjects must exist outside these exclusive circles, while only the representation of who they are is allowed in so that it may be consumed by those with access to art.
“The European Orientalist discourse is invoked and vivified, but it also becomes the site for fresh enactments” in Wiley’s South Asia paintings, Sinha muses. Even so, it is Sinha herself who relies on an orientalised understanding of what constitutes South Asian culture when she traces a line between Wiley’s Indian scenes of “temples or prayer rooms” and “Hindu painting tradition from the 17th to the 19th centuries” (p. 8). Reliant solely on a British postcolonialist purview, this Brahmanical rendition of India not only eschews the Portuguese Indian legacy (except to tellingly minimise it to “Goa’s beach boys”) but also refuses to consider other faith traditions as influences in South Asian art history.
To this end, even as Sinha sees Wiley’s representations of blackness as being linked to “histories of shared oppression” in the Afro-Asiatic context (p. 6), she is unable to connect the Catholic themes in the Nigerian American artist’s canon to South Asia. Wiley’s “Anthony of Padua” proves useful in this regard. Though St. Anthony died in Padua, Italy in 1231, he was born in Portugal in 1195. Revered around the Catholic world, his legacy took particular shape in the former Portuguese colony of Angola, where the 17th-18th century Kongolese prophetess and anti-colonial revolutionary Kimpa Vita claimed to be a medium for his spirit.
In the novel Skin (2001), based on the Portuguese Afro-Asiatic slave trade, Margaret Mascarenhas transports the enslaved progeny of the real life Kimpa Vita to Goa. The novel’s magical realism manifests, among other things, in the form of the prophetess’ Goan descendants being able to shape-shift into black panthers. That the black panther appears as an emblem on St. Anthony’s jacket in Wiley’s painting is coincidental. However, what is not is how Wiley’s Catholic imaginary transcends space and time, in much the same way as a 12th-13th century Portuguese saint shape-shifts into a Black person in African history and in African American art. Here, one figure is not meant to replace the other; rather, what is to be contended with is why one is not as revered as the other. It is through this palette of complexities that Kehinde Wiley envisions a new republic, even as he questions its borders.
From The Goan.