One of the first and most striking pieces in the 30 Americans exhibition is the Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares (2005) by Kehinde Wiley. The piece is situated on the wall directly opposite the entrance to the exhibition and it is enormous, vibrant, and lavishly framed. At first glance, not much seems amiss: it is a heroic portrait of a man astride a gallant white horse set against a shallow background of intricate golden design. At first glance, it might be any equestrian portrait of any celebrated figure from almost any historical period. The subject, however, is a young African American man in red hoodie and black Nikes, and this undoubtedly throws the viewer for a loop.
What makes Kehinde Wiley’s work intriguing is the element of surprise, the sense of disconnect that is piqued by his combination of contradictory elements. And this, I think, is his goal: to confront viewers with unconventional images of power and prestige in order to draw attention to the nature and structure of power itself. By placing primarily black minority subjects within visual and symbolic contexts of historical white male power, Wiley both empowers the individuals and elevates their state of ‘blackness’ to one of supreme dignity. More importantly, however, Wiley reminds viewers of how conspicuously absent, or else marginalized, these figures have been in history and the canonized body of historical representation.
Like many contemporary artists Kehinde Wiley appropriates history in such a way that gives it new and vital meaning. In the Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares, Wiley places a black male subject, contemporarily clad in popular urban street garb, within the historical narrative of a celebrated aristocrat. He directly quotes traditional representations of the Count-Duke done by Diego Velázquez (among others) in the seventeenth century. In doing so, Wiley questions historical structures of power as well as visual/artistic traditions that create and perpetuate them. His hyperreal technique, baroque scale and framing, and injection of historical reference set the stage for a heroic narrative. His reconstruction of this narrative, via the insertion of contemporary subjects, calls attention to the power of the artist as image-maker.
Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108" x 108". Rubell Family Collection, Miami, Florida.
*Please note: the above is in response to 30 Americans as currently exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN. My opinions are in no way associated with or representative of the Frist Center, the Rubell family, or the artists.