Behind Kehinde Wiley the sea. The artist sits in an office at Black Rock in Dakar, Senegal, the artist residency he established a few years ago to support creation and collaborative exchange. Wiley, who is in town for a brief visit before returning to Venice to oversee the final installation details of his Venice Biennale exhibition, gives a brief tour of his immediate surroundings. In front of the floor-to-ceiling windows is a terrace overlooking the rocky Atlantic coast and a dramatic infinity pool. In short, it looks like a place you don’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 in Africa outside of the continent.
“To be able to say that this is also a place where a luxurious, exciting architectural project can take place,” says Wiley, who grew up in Los Angeles. “Again, this is a place of breathtaking views and places of solace where great creativity can spring to mind, rather than just a place of disease, disaster and war – so much of what we were spoon-fed for, certainly.” , my childhood is imminent.”
Wiley’s goal for the Black Rock Foundation is to reach beyond Senegal to other places in West Africa to support and reflect the region’s talent, whether in film or music. To raise awareness, Wiley is opening a pop-up shop selling merchandise alongside his Venice exhibition. The artist has selected images from his work for wearables such as t-shirts, hoodies and scarves, as well as items such as basketballs and candles.
“I wanted to create something that’s fun, bright, chic and inspirational – and something that also gives a sense of the full breadth of what I can do and have done,” he says of what the Kehinde Wiley Shop has to offer . “I stayed away from a lot of merch because I didn’t want the impression of anything purely commercial. But this is a great opportunity to raise awareness of Black Rock as an organization and allow it to continue to thrive for years to come.”
The collection is also rooted in the spirit of community, celebrating the seriousness of a major, international, curated arts event after several years of cancellation.
Kehinde Wiley: An Archeology of Silence opens at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, curated by Christophe Leribault, President of the Musée d’Orsay, as a side event to the Biennale. The exhibition includes large-scale paintings and sculptures that build on the artist’s ‘Down’ series from late August. Many of Wiley’s new works came about while working in Dakar during the pandemic. (The artist currently lives and works in Dakar, Lagos, Nigeria and New York.)
“It’s a repeat of a series of work I started while exhibiting at Deitch Projects in New York. It was a show that was very impressive to me, but maybe it wasn’t fully fleshed out,” he says. “During the pandemic, I wanted to use this time to focus on and revisit this 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” begin to see the level of state violence and injustice in the area.”
Wiley’s work draws inspiration from classical painters; He throws black figures into the canon of art history by reinterpreting compositions and icons of old masters. The artist first came into contact with Leribault while he was director of the Petit Palais, where Wiley exhibited in 2016 a series of stained glass works rooted in the religious narrative of Christ. The artist also points to his 2008 large-scale painting Sleep in the Rubell Collection as a precursor to his most recent work.
“They are all nibbling at the edges of what you will finally see in Venice, namely the coming together of art history’s ‘fallen figure’. Whether fallen soldiers, religious figures at rest or in ecstasy, it is this beauty that surrounds it. At the same time, there is a very deep sadness,” he describes.
“There’s a heroic nature to this work that aligns with a lot of the memorials that we see around 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 type of language aimed at young black and brown children. So I want to be able to take that language and infuse it with a sense of 21st century relevance. How does it feel to be young and vital and heroic in a painting, but also to be sad and depressed very early on? It is a bittersweet work that attempts to simultaneously inhabit that solemn attitude and a genuine pathos.”
Created with the Biennale in mind, the paintings reflect Venice’s history as a place of cultural power, particularly in relation to painting.
“I have so much impact looking at Tiepolo, who is one of the most important Venetian painters, and seeing how light and religiosity are codified in a very specific way,” he says. “You have the representation of God as these rays of light shooting through the sky and bathing on the skin. I mean, those are some of the classic movements that you see in my image – that blue light that you see ceaselessly bouncing off the black skin on the sides, the way you navigate the state of the divine with glow. But also that feeling of being rough and decidedly down to earth, from that time – people wearing what’s fashionable at the moment. because [the people depicted] are literally snapped out of real time on the streets.”
Wiley seeks his subjects from the streets, approaching everyday people in the midst of their daily routines. “And most people say no, most people freak out when a stranger invades their world and demands something,” he adds. “For those who have time to listen to me, there is a surprise at the end.”
(The surprise, of course, is portrayed in a work by one of the most important living artists; the same artist who was commissioned to paint the official presidential portrait of former President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.)
The Dakar Biennale will open shortly after Venice begins on April 23rd. Dak’Art will highlight many artists who have come through Black Rock’s doors 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 sort of a relay race between ideas and the places people go,” says Wiley.
The product images for his latest offerings, also available online at Kehinde Wiley Shop, were shot in Rwanda, lush compositions inspired by the region’s volcanic mountains. Models were scouted in the state 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 falling in love?” says Wiley. “We all have that in common. And that’s a great universal vehicle for us to create culture and think about how art itself can help connect people – no matter where they come from in the world.”