Virginia's Fine Arts Museum Puts 'Blackness' Center-Stage, with Kehinde Wiley

Jun 12, 2016

Kehinde Wiley's "Napolean Leading the Army over the Alps" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art's newest special exhibit.
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne / WVTF

Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts unveiled its newest exhibit this weekend. It’s a big get for the VMFA. The museum is one of only 7 stops for this particular collection, and the only in the southeast.

But it’s special for another reason. The display is a mid-career retrospective from artist Kehinde Wiley, a young black man who’s a pop star of the art world. The exhibit represents an effort by the museum to diversify both its collection, and its audience. 

Standing with Sarah Eckhardt, a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, we crane our heads to look up at a monumentally scaled painting. While we stare, Eckhardt describes not the painting we’re looking at, but one originally done by a French artist in the early 1800’s. 

“So you had Napoleon in his French military uniform on a large rearing horse, on some rocks and they’re literally crossing the Alps, going over the Alps,” says Eckhardt.

The painting we’re standing in front of, in its 15-foot gilded frame, is similar -- but with some important differences. First, this painting’s background is bold, vibrant and red, covered in an ornate gold stencil. Second, it wasn’t painted by a European Old Master, but by Kehinde Wiley, a 38-year-old artist from Los Angeles.

Most importantly, though, Napoleon isn’t riding the horse in this painting. A black man is.

“And that brings up all kinds of questions about who in history is represented, how they get represented,” Eckhardt says. “And who makes the images? And how they make it.” 

The VMFA is one of 7 museums nationwide that will host Kehinde Wiley's mid-career exhibit.
Credit Chioke I'Anson

Wiley takes paintings that you’d find on the walls of Versailles or in Roman museums and replaces the subjects with his own models. He finds his models on the street. People he just likes the look of.

“Then he asks them to come back to his studio and to wear what they want to wear to represent themselves,” Eckhardt says. “Then, in a very collaborative process, they look through art history paintings and pick a painting as a source. And typically a number of them are really masterpiece paintings, well known paintings.”

Wiley aims for his pieces to be provocative, challenging people’s assumptions about what belongs in a fine arts museum.

“For many viewers it’s kind of uncanny to see blackness on walls like this, it’s shocking,” says Wiley. “Whereas for others, it’s not the blackness that’s shocking, it’s the context.” 

IN HIS OWN WORDS: What does it mean to Kehinde Wiley to have his works on display in the former capital of the Confederacy? 

Around the country, the average patron of a fine arts museum is middle-aged, white and female. The membership at Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts is no different. But administrators here are trying to change that, beginning with the artwork.

Kehinde Wiley's "Houdon Paul-Louis"
Credit Courtesy of VMFA

“We have one of the very best collections of African Art in the country, but also African-American art,” says Alex Nyerges, Director of the VMFA. “It’s an area where I’d say we are pretty respectable, but we’re going to do so much better.”

During a press preview of the Wiley exhibit, Nyerges restated the museum’s commitment to attracting a broader audience, pointing to events like African-American family day.

“It’s all about relating to our audience, which is all of us and all of the other folks in central Virginia, and for that matter across the Commonwealth,” Nyerges says. “And it’s the ability for us to be able to connect, everyday.”

The VMFA is hoping that for many Virginians, connecting can be as simple as seeing themselves in the art.

The Kehinde Wiley exhibit will be up at the VMFA in Richmond through September.