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Artists From The Edge

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Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps. 2005 (click image for details)

Kehinde Wiley

Working exclusively in portraiture, Kehinde Wiley fuses traditional formats and motifs with modern modes of representation. Selecting works from old masters like Peter Paul Rubens or Jacques-Louis David, Wiley replaces the historical figures with handsome young black men. 


Wiley’s heroic figures are depicted in front of colourful background patterns that make specific reference to textiles and decorative patterns of various cultures, from 19th-century Judaica paper cut-outs to Martha Stewart’s interior colour swatches. Wiley’s jarring juxtapositions stem from his desire to complicate notions of group identity.  He challenges media stereotypes about national identity.


Napoleon Leading the Army is a clear spin-off of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of 1800-01 (right), which was commissioned by Charles IV, the King of Spain, to commemorate Napoleon’s victorious military campaign against the Austrians. The original portrait smacks of propaganda. Napoleon, in fact, did not pose for the original painting nor did he lead his troops over the mountains into Austria. He sent his soldiers ahead on foot and followed a few days later, riding on a mule.


Wiley questions ideas about authority and historical representation, keeping many original elements and making changes. The blue coat of the original makes an appearance (out from the young man’s camouflage shirt), as does the gold-encased sword (held by a red strap). 


But Wiley’s subject wears an outfit that is modern and reflective of a culture notorious for flashy imagery and larger than life figures: hip hop culture. This young man wears camouflage fatigues, Timberland work boots, and a bandana—conjuring up militaristic associations with the original painting and with the violence of contemporary urban America, particularly as experienced by young black men. 


Wiley’s painting reveals tattoos and red wristbands from the Starter sportswear company, details that add to the sense that this is a real individual living in the early 21st century.


Instead of the naturalistic setting of David’s painting, Wiley has inserted a decorative, unrealistic backdrop reminiscent of luxurious French fabric. This background, along with the high-keyed colours, an ornate frame (complete with faux family shields and the artist’s self-portrait at the top) calls attention to the artificiality and pompousness of image-making in contemporary America. 

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Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1803

 Jacques-Louis David

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Kehinde Wiley

Click here for exhibition A New Republic profiling Wiley's work held at the Brooklyn Museum in 2015.

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“What does it feel like physically to walk a public space and to have your state, your country, your nation say, ‘This is what we stand by’? No! We want more. We demand more.... And today we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American…. Are we ready?” 

Kehinde Wiley, Times Square, NYC,  2019

Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019

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