The Brooklyn Museum recently exhibited the works of two mainstream successful black artists, Kehinde Wiley and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The presentation of these two artists simultaneously connects the museum to a Black aesthetic and community, a connection that is amiss with museums and the more general art world. It’s that very lack of connection that has fueled both of these artists’ works.
An interplay exists between what these two men convey in their work and the institution that is hosting them. They both represent the lack of representation when it comes to Black subjects and artists yet both are being celebrated by the very type of institution that has been the gatekeeper of Eurocentric definitions of fine art.
Some see these simultaneous exhibitions as a step forward for representation, but are they? Or could it be that once again the Black experience is being celebrated for its coolness and not necessarily for its message. Let’s take a closer look at these two exhibits.
The museum described the pieces in Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic as raising “questions about race, gender, and the politics of representation by portraying contemporary African American men and women using the conventions of traditional European portraiture.” It’s a straightforward description and Wiley uses the placement of Blackness as the focal point for all of his pieces. Blackness not only referred to the persons in the pieces of work but also the cultural representation. As one entered the center of the exhibition room, the stained glass paintings that were placed high and bright in a circular fashion—mimicking a cathedral setting—grabbed your attention.
And through this new stained glass medium, Wiley’s style is evident. He continues this religious reference through works from his iconic series drawn from fifteenth-century Byzantine icons. The gold-framed pieces incorporated Wiley’s portraiture style with tweaks to the original European works upon which they are based. The results were stunning pieces of work—alive and difficult not to notice, but the content, a bit problematic.
The basis of Wiley’s work is to show the lack of representation of Blackness throughout art history, by replacing (usually wealthy) white people, in famous or notable paintings, with Black people. Although this puts an element of Blackness to the visual forefront, it does very little to demand representation, even though some may argue the works themselves are that representation. It is difficult to say what they, in fact, represent since Wiley borrows poses and elements from European paintings.
His subjects lose their own identity and become placeholders to their original European counterparts. Aside from the contemporary look of his subjects, we don’t get a very good sense of who they are. In some cases, they come across as playing dress up or make believe. The work depicts Blacks as wanting to achieve the European standard of respectability. One must wonder if the content of Wiley’s work has been embraced by the mainstream because of how safe it is in seeking Black representation through a European standard. Would his work have obtained the same notoriety if he created intimate black portraits?
Basquiat unlike Wiley does not adhere to European standards in his style or subjects. Instead, he documented the world as he saw it and the Black people who live in it. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks attempts to give audiences a glimpse of Basquiat’s world and process thru unbound pages of marble notebooks that he used to jot down a variety of things. The information contained in these books ranges from random phone numbers to reflections and the beginnings of new pieces.
One gets a sense of Basquiat’s scattered and busy mind thru these pages and their continuity with his actual pieces. But bear in mind that these notebooks are in stark contrast to his pieces. They are very much simplified. One can make assumptions about his life based on these pages but they offer very little information. For many artists their notebooks/sketchbooks are meant only for their eyes. It seems no different for Basquiat. The notebooks come across more as a place to put down reminders and less of space for studying and evolving his process. So, why display these notebooks?
It’s no secret that Basquiat has a huge following and is considered a revolutionary art figure. So many will come to view them and it will generate funds. Not too many black artists in his time or before that have accomplished mainstream success the way he did while alive.
There isn’t anything that can be taken away from Basquiat’s legacy or success. But when one compares his work to others in the fine arts, one can see why he is in a separate category. His brushwork and mixed media pieces are in complete opposition to Wiley’s yet they both hold a place in established art history—demonstrating the diversity among Black artists.
Despite the range among Black artists, their mainstream art world has only recognized a very few of them. Even when the art world recognizes the efforts of the few Black artists it perceives as worthy, it still does so in ways that benefit itself and rarely produces systemic ways of nurturing Black artists.