Black faces exude royalty in VMFA’s Wiley, Parks exhibits

Black faces exude royalty in Wiley exhibit

Brooklyn-based painter Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” has been a hit in Richmond’s famed Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Making its debut on June 10th, Wiley’s life retrospective has brought the museum much excitement.

Much like the spectrum of each painting’s color palettes, exhibit visitors varied in nationalities, age, gender and experience. Regardless of one’s melanin content, each visitor left feeling something visceral.

“‘I’m almost in awe to the point where I cry for no reason,” said Radford University student Jordan Wilson. “His attention to detail is just insane.”

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(Photo: Max Yawney, courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California)

Wilson, like the thousands who’ve visited the critically-acclaimed art exhibit this summer, left imagining and fulfilled. With 60 pieces of art, ranging from canvas paintings to bronze bust sculptures, the exhibit crystallizes black life, culture and struggle by way of a myriad of artful juxtapositions.

A mainstay in Wiley’s work is his critique of the historic lack of black representation in contemporary art.

“The reason I came is because you don’t really see African-Americans in art exhibits,” said attendee Sharee Fitzgerald.

To best manifest this, each piece is centered on the black experience. Wiley has been known for his realistic works of black heroism by way of his street casting process. Through this method, Wiley offers strangers, sometimes people he meets on the street, to model for a portrait.

“The model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts the pose of the painting’s figure,” states Wiley’s studio website. “By inviting the subjects to select a work of art, Wiley gives them a measure of control over the way they’re portrayed”

(Photo: Max Yawney, courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California)
(Photo: Max Yawney, courtesy of Roberts &
Tilton, Culver City, California)

The 39 year-old has left a profound impact on the world of art and “A New Republic” only adds to his canon.

“By replacing the European aristocrats with contemporary black subjects, Wiley’s portraits draw attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives,” the VMFA states in the exhibit summary.

Where Napolean jackets and embroidered cloaks served as affirmation, suede Timbs and an afro pic-in hair do just fine instead. Hip-hop culture, undeniably the world’s biggest force, is used as a vehicle to drive it’s narrative: we have and always will matter.

In the new age of colorism and racism, “A New Republic” is the antithesis to the current treatment of black life. With pieces like Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) and Support the Rural Population and Serve 500 Million Peasants (2007), themes of power and nobility are pondered. In others, like Shantavia Beale II (2012) and The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte (2014), the skin of black women glistens proudly, channeling black girl magic in the face of insurmountable peril.

“Here is a space for the new way of seeing,” Wiley said in the VMFA’s video.

The exhibit’s argument and statement are universal and transcends the confines of the country. In his World Stage showcase, brown skin is documented in a series of his signature paintings. With these images, Wiley shows that in countries like Brazil, Sri Lanka, Senegal and Jamaica, the movement still charges on.

Most importantly, the message of hope and celebration of black culture reigns true in Wiley’s “A New Republic”. Imagining a world where these images will one day mirror and reflect the reality of the world rather than the emitting of the mind.

“A New Republic” concludes Sept. 5. Students can purchase an annual VMFA membership for $10.


Parks Exhibit Refocuses Black Plight and Triumph

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1950. Gelatin silver print. Provided by: © The Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1950. Gelatin silver print. Provided by: © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Growing up in Fort Scott, Kansas in the Jim Crow midwest, photographer, director, musician and writer Gordon Parks saw his people being mistreated and exploited and somehow found beauty in the experience of struggle. Whether it is a black father watching his young queen read the newspaper (“Untitled, St. Louis, Missouri, 1950) or a line of Black Muslims holdings signs that read “Police Brutality Must Go” (Untitled, New York, NY, 1963), Parks vowed to challenge traditional narratives of black culture and life with his photography.

His vision, encapsulated in various lenses, has gone on to be celebrated all over the world and most recently, here in Richmond. His exhibit, “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott” has been a highlight at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts this summer.

“Back to Scott” captures Parks’ return to his childhood town, reflecting on the people and community that made him some twenty years later. Because some people had moved since he left the town, Parks traveled to different cities to take their photos. A key aspect of these shots were that they were taken during the segregation of the 1950’s, shortly before the Civil Rights Movement mobilized on a national scale.

Parks had been no stranger to revolution. In 1948, Parks became the first African-American photographer and writer for TIME Magazine. From there he went on to be one of the most celebrated photographers in history.

The Parks exhibit, while powerful and moving, only reveals part of the luminary’s genius. A self-taught photographer, Parks was also the first black artist to direct and write a hit Hollywood film, “The Learning Tree,” based on his novel of the same name.

“The Learning Tree” is a semi-autobiographical story of Parks’ upbringing in Kansas.

His photos and essays chronicled black identity, family life, the workings of the inner city and movements like the Nation of Islam. A unique aspect of the exhibit is that each photo is embedded with caption notes that help offer some context to the images.

Parks’ works provided TIME’s white audience and readership a substantially different glimpse into the black experience in a time of racial discourse.

Before movies, television networks and social media, photos like his were the first mainstream introduction to black life visually. Most importantly, his work helped shape America’s understanding of the social issues affecting blacks in the country.

The “Gordon Parks: Back to Scott” exhibit showcase concludes Oct. 10. Students can purchase an annual VMFA membership for $10.


Muktaru JallohStaff Writer, Muktaru Jalloh
Muktaru is a senior double majoring in English and political science with a minor in media studies. Topic areas Muktaru enjoys covering include music, sports, pop culture and politics. // jallohmm@commonwealthtimes.org

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