Recently, superstar artist Kehinde Wiley brought the latest installment of his new series to the UK for his first ever London solo show, coinciding with the London Frieze season. Entitled The World Stage: Jamaica, the exhibit at the Stephen Friedman Gallery places Wiley’s oversized and masterful portraits of everyday islanders on display right in the heart of Mayfair’s exclusive art district, and a stone’s throw away from the National Art Academy and Ozwald Boateng’s headquarters on Saville Row. Parlour caught up with Mr. Wiley at the gallery to learn his thoughts on blending cultures, quenching his thirst for travel and what he wants viewers to gain from The World Stage: Jamaica.
You’ve said that your work is a type of self-portraiture, what did you learn about yourself through this project?
My work is self-portraiture in concept but not in practice. In practice it’s about each and every young person I run into, whether I’m in the streets of Portland or Kingston. What I learned is how each and every one of those people responded to me as an artist and to this project as a provocation. Some people were incredibly excited about it; wondering who this guy is and how they could look good in a portrait. Soon people showed up with clothing they’d purchased just for the occasion and others were completely lost as to how painting matters in everyone’s every day to day life. The joy for me is drawing upon all of these resources, to use these great traditions of mobilizing wealth towards celebrating one person.
What’s your approach to connecting London and Jamaica in this show?
This collection has me drawing lines of connection between the traditional seats of power within painting. Within British portraiture, you’ll find that many portraits were commissioned by people who earned their great wealth within the Caribbean. The work here in the gallery represents the coming together of two worlds, at once far-flung and familiar.
As an African American, Afro-Caribbean culture is something that almost jumps out at you from the streets of Brooklyn, Bronx and Harlem. Brand Jamaica is everywhere. You can go from the streets of Tel Aviv in Jerusalem to Sao Paulo and Beijing and find young people everywhere who are fascinated by reggae and its ability to communicate a longing for freedom and self-expression. I really wanted to take the strength of both and have them explode and collapse in on each other, accepting both as part of the challenge to create something that’s wholly new.
A stand out feature of this show is your depiction of both men and women in frame. How did your experience of working with the female gaze differ from the “Economy of Grace,” in which you focused singularly on women for the first time?
This project is about complete strangers who were minding their own business going to work or enjoy their evening and ran into an American artist who’s asking them to pose. This body of work doesn’t feel as deliberate, it feels more circumstantial and that allows the Jamaican project to have a type of freshness that “Economy of Grace” did not.
How important is it for you to explore new possibilities within portraiture?
My work’s mostly concentrated on things that we don’t always see, so [for example], a hetero normative depiction of a couple wouldn’t be very appealing to me as an artist trying to push the boundaries. But within what I might consider normal/normalized images, there are always little cracks, and that’s the call to arms that I have as an artist. Everyday I push myself into territory that makes me feel a bit destabilized and uncomfortable. I want to be as excited to see the next show as anyone else so if I had an answer as to what that next show would look like I wouldn’t be appropriately doing my job.
How constrained or empowered do you feel by people’s expectations of your brand?
We use the word brand in this day in age but this is something we’ve always known as consumers of culture, [that] you get a certain feeling when you leave an artist’s work. I want people who see a Kehinde Wiley exhibition to have an overwhelming sense of celebration. It’s an embrace of who we are as a people, it’s optimistic, it’s a celebration of the complexity of culture.
You have studios in the US, China and Senegal, and you always seem to be on the move. To what extent is your urge to travel about confronting or discovering new truths as opposed to a sense of escapism?
There’s a long history of African Americans who leave America’s shores to London and Paris, specifically. Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, there’s been a constant drive and need within African Americans to see oneself outside of the rubric of white American racist impulses. And that sense of escapism is not imagined; it’s very real and has contributed to the cultural legacy that we all enjoy now. As a young artist working in the 21st century, the impact of racism is a bit more subtle. It’s not implicated within judicial law, such as it is expressed within the more subtle attitudes and opinions you might see. My engagement with different parts of the world is much more about satisfying an urge to push forth, or the impulse of the avant-garde to create new territory for art, to put painting where it hasn’t been done before.
The World Stage: Jamaica by Kehinde Wiley is on show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London until November 16, 2013. For more information on Kehinde, see kehindewiley.com.
By Lisa Anderson – When she’s not raising money and developing business for NGOs and other companies, she’s indulging in her passion for international arts and culture. Find her at Mwendelezi.com.
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