In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher uses a story about captives in a cave to illuminate how people are—or are not—able to think about the world.
Imagine captives in a cave, tied in such a way that they can only see what is right in front of them. Behind these captives is a fire, and behind that, a wall on top of which rests statues manipulated puppet show–style by people who cannot be seen. Because the captives can see only what is right in front of them, the shadows cast on the wall of the cave by those statues are, to these captives, the only other things in the world.
Imagine, then, that one day, somebody unties one of the captives, allowing him to look around the cave and see the fire and the wall and the statues. His mind is blown. He realizes that the world he once knew was only a manipulation of what actually exists, and finally he is able to understand the source of the shadows on the wall.
A few days later, this same captive gets pulled out of the cave and into the day. He smells plants and hears birds and feels the grass under his feet. He now understands that the world is bigger even than the cave. And when he looks up, he sees the sun, the source of all energy, and the freed captive begins to understand just how it is that he is now able to see anything at all.
Kehinde Wiley is pulling you out of the cave.
New York–based painter Kehinde Wiley’s latest exhibition, A New Republic, debuted last year at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a collection, like much of Wiley’s work, that inserts black men and women into stately portraits that once called to us only from the annals of white European aristocracy and empire, an injection of color into an otherwise pale world of monochromatic imperialism.
Even beyond A New Republic, Wiley’s subjects are often black (or more recently, of Arab or East African descent) and dressed in traditional modern street clothes or hip-hop inspired threads heavily patterned with brands or team names. Sometimes his subject is Questlove or LL Cool J. Wiley backdrops his subjects with ornate colors, shapes, and patterns characteristic of only the highest royalty. Wiley practices “street casting,” pulling his subjects from the pools of strangers that puddle and flow through the streets of wherever he may be—the States, China, India, Nigeria, Brazil, or Haiti—like he did for his collection The World Stage.
Wiley’s portraits are huge, larger-than-life-sized paintings of almost photographic quality, bringing to the canvas the very life and animation that brought Wiley to his subject in the first place.
A New Republic could mark the pinnacle of Wiley’s career, though it’s not likely that he’ll be descending from that peak any time soon. It’s difficult to take in the exhibit and not become nostalgic. Wiley at plays real-time documentarian and memorializer all at once to a portrait of black America that has seldom been so well illustrated. This is a body of work that celebrates, as Wiley puts it, “…a diversity of experiences, a picture of what black American kids are up to, a picture of what the global story with regard to how young people adorn themselves and celebrate and fall in love.”
“The way that the body is seen has a lot to do with light,” says Wiley of his work. “How does the artist choose to allow light to flow across the body?” His clarity of thinking, his eloquence in expressing with images as well as with words, his precision of process, they mark a man with the purest gift of artistry.
At a time when it could not be more important, A New Republic poses vital questions that we should be asking ourselves, like, by what light are we seeing black Americans, specifically young black men? By what light are we illuminating their faces and histories and expressions and experiences? And are we still existing only in our caves, acting as passive, yet aggressive, onlookers? Perhaps it’s time that we step out into the day.
Kehinde Wiley’s A New Republic can be seen:
The Seattle Art Museum | February 12–May 8
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts | June 10–September 11
The Phoenix Art Museum | October 14–January 8, 2017
The Toledo Museum of Art | February 10–May 14, 2017
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art | June 16–September 10, 2017
- As told by Emily McCrary
Images via Kehinde Wiley