But at his talk last night at the National Museum of the American Indian Museum’s Rasmuson Theater — the last in the National Museum of African Art’s three-part “Global Africa” series — Wiley explained how his personal history has led him to the more universal questions that fuel his work.
Beginning with his childhood in L.A., where he developed an early interest in 18th- and 19th-century French and English portraiture, Wiley recounted his career path, from the San Francisco Art Institute to Yale to a residency at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He spoke of his journey to Nigeria to find his father (who met his mother while studying in the United States and returned to his home country), and of coming across a mugshot of a young African American man on a piece of paper blowing through the streets of Harlem that turned his concept of the portrait on its head.
“Here were these young black men being consumed in pop culture but not known,” he told the audience of about 250 people. “I wanted to poke my finger into this wound and see how deep it went. I wanted to allow them to participate in the construction of who they are.”
Wiley started casting models from Harlem, and photographing them in heroic poses used by the classical artists he had studied, particularly Venetian Renaissance masters such as Tiepolo and Titian. He used exclusively African American male models, which Wiley — himself an African American male — said was a deliberate move to explore specific power dynamics with both personal and global resonances.
Soon, Wiley began applying a similar tactic all over the world. He expanded the size of his canvases to take over entire gallery walls. (He compared painting this large to “blood sport.”) Instead of limiting himself to heroic poses, he began capturing his models in postures of defeat and even death.
In his global explorations, Wiley said he was “constantly destabilized.” His work posed a seemingly endless series of questions: Why did models in New York behave as if Wiley was lucky to have “discovered” them, while models in Africa were consistently dumbfounded as to why anyone would want to use them in a piece of art? Why did transcribing certain postures to different cultures produce such a drastically different result? How did Wiley’s touristic, or even anthropological gaze enter into conversation with his work? Does “authenticity” exist, and if so, why does it matter? Finally, how can painting exist in a way that’s relevant to the 21st century?
“It’s creating situations, provocations, ruptures,” said the artist in a conversation with Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk after his lecture. “It’s a very self-conscious process. Sometimes I almost feel guilty with what I’ve created.”
Admittedly, Wiley doesn’t have all the answers to questions posed by his art. But his personal motto is the single word, “proceed.”
“I just keep coming back to this word,” he said. “As an artist, we can’t turn away from these things, we must run towards them. The artist’s job is to proceed forward.”