‘Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis’ opens at SLAM, portraits inspired by museum collection make for moving tribute to the region

“When thinking about this exhibition I wanted it to be a response to St. Louis,” Kehinde Wiley said as he introduced “Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis” during the press preview of the exhibition Thursday morning at the Saint Louis Art Museum. “I wanted it to be a response to the institution. In a strange way I wanted it to talk about the way that institutions as sites have a specific relationship to their community.”

While walking into the second space within the gallery to browse the paintings that encompass the exhibition that opened to the public on Friday, I was stopped in my tracks when I cast my eyes upon “Robert Hay Drummond, D.D., Archbishop of York and Chancellor of the Order of the Garter, 2018.”

I recognized the face of one of his subjects in the collection of paintings. I had actually seen her before – the woman in the two-person portrait with her shoulders held high and a book smartly propped on her leg – on more than one occasion.

While trying to place her face, the significance of the exhibition was clear. I stopped trying to remember where I knew this woman from and soaked in the magnitude of seeing a face I explicitly recognize within an exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum. In that moment, I forged a new relationship with the institution – and the power of representation within the visual arts.

That was the intention for Wiley with “Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis,” which will be on display through February 10. “There is a reason why I went into the permanent collection and sort of started scouring through all of those paintings,” Wiley said. “I wanted to create this dichotomy between the inside of the institution and the outside.”

The exhibition features 11 paintings and is curated by Simon Kelly, Saint Louis Art Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, and Hannah Klemm, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, with Molly Moog, research assistant.

In dignified poses that depict royalty and centuries-old wealth, there they sat and stood. Most of them wearing their regular clothes. More than one had Nike emblems with visible “Just Do It” logos. Another had a fitted cap that read “Ferguson,” across the front. There were women in tank tops, jeans, shorts and open-toe sandals. They were regal in their regular every day wear, the expressions on their faces imply that they have every right to be hung there.

“The whole point of this exhibition is to give one a sense of the radical contingency that gives rise to these images – a sense of chance, the sense of celebration of the self,” Wiley said. “All of these models were told this is going to be your portrait, so wear something that reflects you.”

Last summer he took to the streets of North City and North County to find subjects for what would be his first exhibition since the now famous portrait of President Barack Obama was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery – and Wiley became the first African-American artist commissioned for a presidential portrait. He dug into the works that dated from the 1540s to the 1920s and intersected them with the present by way of his muses for “Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis.”

“I do the same process all over the world. I’ll be in the favelas of Brazil or the streets of Sri Lanka really charting what it feels like to be young and alive in the 21st century,” Wiley said. “And so much of it is a portrait of young people fashioning identities oftentimes shot through the rubric of American hip-hop. You’ll see kids in the nightclubs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem totally in American hip-hop swagger. [I was ] talking to Ethiopian Jews about their rap lyrics and how they are constructing who they are through the lens of American blackness. It’s a strange fracturing of image and fashioning of self.”

But created in the wake of Ferguson, “Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis” had special significance. The Ferguson Market was one of the scouting locations.

“We specifically went to the convenient store where he [Michael Brown] was allegedly stealing and stood outside and with the cameras and with the books and eventually people sort of found me,” Wiley said. “It became this strange sort of moment around celebrating his life. That’s certainly not the entire way to read this body of work, but I do think that it’s a certain lens that we can’t ignore.

There’s a defiance in the work – in its radical youth, in its demand to be present and beautiful and indelible. I think that’s perhaps the most fitting memorial.”

Wiley has become a pop culture phenomenon by intersecting the centuries old art form of classical portrait painting and the celebration of blackness.

“It’s fascinating how you can take a snapshot within a society and within a given amount of time the culture will create a lens through which to see it,” Wiley said. “We have to see these as an affirmation – a saying ‘yes’ to the people who happen to look like me on these walls. It’s the museum making a decision, saying, ‘this is the type of work and type of people who matter.’

There is something powerful about being able to see yourself – and that makes museum culture seem a lot more inviting.”

Indeed, it is.

“Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis” will be on display through February 10, 2019 at Saint Louis Art Museum. For more information, visit www.slam.org or call (314) 721-0072.