“The Head Must be Proud” Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Israel at The Jewish Museum, New York

by Sarah Hassan, April 2012

In the darkened, vast space of the Jewish Museum’s second floor galleries, Alios Itzhak stands, in jeans and a t-shirt, at an imposing degree from his large-scale portrait. With a curled fist resting on his hip, his head tilted slightly to the side to reveal the radiance of his face—the angular nose and arched eyebrow that seem to ask, “Oh, are you here to see me?”Indeed we are. Alios Itzhak (2011) is the work that originated an entire show: Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Israel. Book-ended by Benediter Brkou (2011),which shows a cheekily confident youth showing off his purple pants and Leviathan Zodiac (2011), illustrating a fit young man with his arm raised at attention, fingers splayed as if commanding the patterns that swirl behind him, Alios Itzhak finds himself in model company thanks to Wiley’s discerning eye for urban grandeur.

Better known for its collection of Kaddish cups and Chagall retrospectives, the museum seems an unlikely venue for a contemporary artist concerned with the complex socio-political presence of young men of color in contemporary urban settings. Yet with its decisive acquisition of Alios Itzhak (2011)from the Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles, the Jewish Museum realized it had something special on its hands. At once paying homage to traditional Judaica (the patterns in Alios were taken verbatim from a paper cut in the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection), as well as the contemporary struggle of identity in an ever-evolving society, Wiley’s staggering portrait of the Ethiopian Jew is the center jewel in a glittering crown of work concerned with Arab Israelis, native-born Israelis and other Ethiopian Jews. It is a complicated cast of characters given the royal treatment by Wiley’s signature execution of the urban male in the manner of Renaissance and Baroque court portraiture. This kind of portraiture is made all the more significant by its concentration on a geographic locale that has been a combustible center for questioning what criteria one must fulfill to belong to the place they call home.

Israel was the final frontier in Wiley’s The World Stage series, a project that has taken him to China, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Brazil and Senegal to explore the youth culture in environments known for their intricate social geographies. In Israel, Wiley scouted his subjects in the nightclubs, malls, bars, discos and sporting venues of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, inspired by the constant intermingling of young people from diverse and opposing backgrounds and what brought them together, such as Black-American culture, Rastafarianism, and hip hop. One particular subject which encompasses all three is the Ethiopian Jewish rapper, Kalkidan Mashasha, whose musical call for unity streams from the video installation at the end of the gallery. The results of Wiley’s travels are portraits that marry his indebtedness to the traditional and genius at capturing the current. Young men sporting eye piercings, dreadlocks and subversive t-shirts are all elevated to the stature of regal European kings and statesmen, while immersed in symbols weighty with mystical, religious and cultural significance.

One of the incredible advantages of having this show in the Jewish Museum is the opportunity to display the original artifacts from which Wiley drew inspiration for these specific portraits. Richly ornate Torah ark coverings and embroidered Uzbeki-Jewish wall hangings lay encased under glass beside the paintings whose patterns correlate to their own, while faded Venetian marriage contracts and worn textiles displayed in homes that act as a compass towards Jerusalem all provide supplemental material for the eye. Yet despite the uplifting effect of each portrait’s kaleidoscope of color and design, it is difficult to miss the difference in expressions between the Ethiopian Jews and the Arab-Israelis. While the former seem cheery in their confidence, the latter look out with a harder, more somber and shrouded gaze, as if they are fighting a silent and continual battle, even as artist’s models. Wiley treats this variant with flatter and more jarring pattern play: the stark red, yellow and green of the intricate window behind Mahmud Abu Razak (2011) highlights the subject’s direct stare, while the baroque gold leafed wallpaper of Hamza El Essawi (2011), saturate the subject’s posturing, suggesting that he is not entirely convinced of the viewer’s intentions. A more obvious tool used to mark the origins of his subjects are the custom wooden frames in which Wiley has placed each work: the Jewish subjects are housed in frames decorated with the Ten Commandments on tablets written in Hebrew and supported by the Lion of Judah with the hands of a Kohen as a triangular crown, while the Arab-Israelis are topped with tablets written in Hebrew roughly translated from Rodney King’s famous plea that sparked the 1991 race riots in Los Angeles: “Can we all get along?”

Yet, essentially, a political show this is not. It would be too easy to accuse Wiley of that, even just by glancing at his mediums: oil, gold and silver, three sacred elements that follow somewhat uncomfortably behind each other in the global market and that have been the cause of many a dispute in the region he has chosen to illustrate. Instead, The World Stage: Israel marks Wiley at the height of his creative and intellectual powers. He is that rare artist with a deep understanding of his own social consciousness without overstating his intentions, a conscious consumer of motifs and patterns with his eye ever-fixed on the places and people he encounters. The World Stage series is the culmination of Wiley’s attempts to dig deeper into the question that has concerned his oeuvre from the beginning: What does it mean to be a man, a young man of color, in societies that have struggled to give credit to his very presence? Here it is not an answer that is given, but an effect. Recorded while positioning a model for a photograph, Wiley tilts the man’s chin upward, stating that “the head must be proud.” That display of confidence becomes contagious; one walks taller and inhabits a more vibrant world after viewing The World Stage: Israel.

Kehinde Wiley/ The Word Stage: Israel
9 March–July 29, 2012
The Jewish Museum
New York