Behind Kehinde Wiley, the ocean. The artist is sitting in an office at Black Rock in Dakar, Senegal, the artist residency he established several years ago to support creation and collaborative exchange. Wiley, who’s in town for a short visit before heading back to Venice to oversee final installation details of his Venice Biennale exhibition, gives a brief tour of his immediate surroundings. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows is a deck overlooking the rocky Atlantic Ocean coastline and a dramatic infinity pool. In short, it looks like a place you wouldn’t want to leave.
Wiley is part of a movement of young artists establishing residency programs across Africa with the intention of creating spaces and visibility for emerging artists, while also shifting the narrative around Africa outside of the continent.
“To be able to say that this, too, is a place where a luxury, exciting architectural project can happen,” says Wiley, who grew up in Los Angeles. “This, too, is a space with stunning views and places of solace where great creativity can come to mind, and not just a site of disease, disaster and war — so much of what we’ve been spoon-fed for, certainly, my childhood coming up.”
Wiley’s goal for the Black Rock foundation is to move beyond Senegal and into other locations in West Africa to support and mirror the talents of the region, be it in film or music. To raise awareness, Wiley is launching a pop-up shop of merchandise adjacent to his exhibition in Venice. The artist has selected imagery from his body of work for wearables such as T-shirts, hoodies and scarves, and items including basketballs and candles.
“I wanted to create something that was fun, bright, chic, inspiring — and something that also gave a sense of the full range of what I can do and what I have done,” he says of the Kehinde Wiley Shop offerings. “I’ve stayed away from a lot of the merchandising because I didn’t want to have the perception of something that was strictly commercial. But this is a great opportunity to bring awareness to Black Rock as an organization and also allow it to continue to thrive in the years to come.”
The collection is also rooted in the spirit of community and celebrating the gravitas of a big, international, curated art event after several years of cancellations.
“Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence” will open at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, curated by Christophe Leribault, president of the Musée d’Orsay, as a collateral event of the Biennale. The show includes large-scale paintings and sculptures that build upon the artist’s “Down” series from the late Aughts. Many of Wiley’s new works were created while working in Dakar during the pandemic. (The artist currently lives and works in Dakar, Lagos, Nigeria, and New York.)
“It’s a reprise of a body of work that I started when I was showing in New York at Deitch Projects. It was a show that was very impactful for me, but it was perhaps not fully fleshed out,” he says. “During the pandemic, I wanted to use that time to focus in and revisit that body of work, particularly in light of some of the more recent issues surrounding Black Lives Matter and police brutality, and the visibility — now thanks to technology — that we’re starting to see surrounding levels of state violence and injustice.”’
Wiley’s work draws inspiration from classical painters; he casts Black figures into the canon of art history through reimagining Old Master compositions and icons. The artist first connected with Leribault when he was director at the Petit Palais, where in 2016 Wiley exhibited a series of stained-glass works rooted in the religious narrative of Christ. The artist also points to his large-scale 2008 painting “Sleep,” in the Rubell Collection, as a precursor to his latest works.
“They’re all nibbling around the edges of what you’ll finally see in Venice, which is the coming together of the ‘fallen figure’ in art history. Whether it be fallen soldiers, religious figures in states of repose or in states of ecstasy, there’s this beauty that surrounds it. At the same time, there’s a very deep sadness,” he describes.
“There’s a heroic nature to this work, which is in keeping with a lot of monuments that we see throughout the world, where we honor our fallen, we honor and tell ourselves these stories about resilience and survival about nation states, about who we are. But very rarely do we see this kind of language pointed at young Black and brown kids. So I want to be able to take that language and imbibe it with a sense of 21st-century actuality. What does it feel like to be young and vital and heroic in a painting, but also sadly struck down at a very early age? It’s a bittersweet body of work that attempts to inhabit both this celebratory stance and a real pathos at the same time.”
The paintings were created with the Biennale in mind, and play into Venice’s history as a place of cultural power, particularly in relation to painting.
“So much of my influence has come from looking at Tiepolo, who’s one of the most quintessential of the Venetian painters, looking at the sense in which light and the religious are codified in a very specific manner,” he says. “You have the depiction of God as these rays of light that shoot through the heavens and bathes itself across skin. I mean, these are some of the classic moves that you see within my painting — that blue light that you see incessantly bouncing off Black skin on the sides, the way that you navigate the state of divine with resplendency. But also this sense of being ruggedly and decidedly of the earth, of this time — people wearing what happens to be in fashion at any given time. Because [the people depicted] are literally ripped from real time in the streets.”
Wiley scouts his subjects from the street, approaching everyday people in the midst of their daily routines. “And most people say no, most people are freaked out by a stranger invading their world and demanding something,” he adds. “For those people who do have the time to listen to hear me out, there’s a surprise at the end.”
(The surprise, of course, is being depicted in a work by one of the most important living artists; the same artist tasked with former President Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.)
The Dakar Biennale will open shortly after Venice kicks off on April 23. Dak’Art will highlight many artists who have come through the doors of Black Rock, and showcase the diversity supported by the residency.
“[The artists] come from all different countries and all different races and walks of life, and the exhibition itself becomes a story about how the artists interacted; how one artist shares creative space with another. It becomes a kind of relay race between ideas and the places where people are coming,” Wiley says.
The product imagery for his latest offerings, also available online at the Kehinde Wiley Shop, was shot in Rwanda, lush compositions that were inspired by the region’s volcanic mountains. Models were scouted from the country’s capital Kigali, and the images underscore the interplay between country and city life. At the same time, the images present a romantic and humanized depiction of life in Africa.
“What’s more human than getting dressed, wanting to look good and wanting to fall in love?” Wiley says. “That’s something that we all have in common. And that’s a great universal means by which we can create culture and think about how art itself can be at the service of connecting people — regardless of where they’re coming from in the world.”