Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence at Fondazione Cini in Venice

Kehinde Wiley is best known for his vibrant portraits of contemporary African-American and African-Diasporic individuals that subvert the hierarchies and conventions of European and American portraiture. His famous portrait of Barack Obama remains his magnum opus. Working across painting, sculpture, and video, Wiley’s flat-surface portraits challenge complex sociopolitical narratives.

Curated by Christophe Leribault, Director of Musee d’Orsay in Paris, Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence is a spectacular exhibition presented at Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice, as a collateral event of La Biennale de Venezia.

For this new body of work, Wiley sheds light on the brutalities of American and global colonial pasts using the language of the fallen hero. Inspired by Holbein’s painting The Dead Christ in the Tomb as well as historical paintings and sculptures of fallen warriors and figures in the state of repose, Wiley went for monumental scales. The exhibition explores themes of violence, pain and death.

“That is the archaeology I am unearthing: The spectre of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world.” Wiley said.

Recalling political and police horrors in the US, the new portraits depict young Black men and women in positions of vulnerability. They reveal ideas of survival and resilience, and showcase the beauty that can emerge from the horrific. The vibrancy of the colours and the compositions also reflect Wiley’s queer identity. These poses, borrowed from Western European art historical sources, function as beautiful elegies echoing a central metaphor of youth. The opening of the exhibition during La Biennale’s inaugural week was accompanied by a stunning performance by American singer-songwriter Moses Sumney.