Newsletter Issue:
Fall 2022

Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence

by Terrence Phearse, Cohort ’21 

Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, Italy

Fig 1

This article discusses the relationship between the fallen heroes and monuments through Kehinde Wiley’s paintings and bronze sculptures in connection to a Hegelian dialectic for recognition. Hegelian recognition is defined through self-consciousness, which leads to the fight to the death for recognition of the master-slave dialectic and is evident in the artwork’s formal features seen in Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition An Archaeology of Silence. This exhibition is inspired by Holbein’s painting The Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520–22), historical Venetian painters Tiepolo and Titian, and other Western monuments in a state of silence. While Wiley’s exhibition represents the complex history of slavery, war, and colonization in a broader sense, this article argues—contrary to Hegelian recognition—that the Negro, who was locked into servitude during these periods, did not, according to Fanon, fight to the death in war for their freedom but suffered under slavery and colonization. However, Wiley’s altruistic, Baroque-style, large-scale paintings and sculptures create a rhetorical language of the history of state power often found in military portraiture to reposition a 21st-century fight for freedom in the romanticized yet tragic repose of silence and loss of African Americans at the hands of the state, police violence, and subjugation. The paintings and objects question what it means to monumentalize something that had life. 

The master and the slave dialectic is a process that Hegel outlines between two self-conscious individuals, whereby each person confronts the other as a threat to their own self in relation to the world and demands recognition, seeing each other only as an animal that should be destroyed resulting in a fight to the death for recognition (Kojève 9). The master believes they have obtained recognition that the world is theirs, but this is only the result of another person being reduced to an object (a slave). Desire, consciousness, self-consciousness, and oppressed labor are the foundation for their struggle for recognition. Historically, the Negro (or slave), has been forced into servitude physically and psychologically. Kojève, speaking of Hegel, states that “The Master, unable to recognize the Other who recognizes him, finds himself in an impasse. Wiley, in his current exhibition, has re-contextualized these elements to gaze upon the Hegelian life struggle fight to the death of recognition through displaying young Black men (and women) who were killed all over the world. Historically, the slave was held captive and murdered, but in this present-day portrayal of murders, technology has allowed viewers to witness these graphic depictions of violence against the Black body that were once silenced or unwitnessed. The central metaphors of Wiley’s exhibition are those of strength and vulnerability, and through those metaphors, silence emerges. Darnella Frazier, for example, the minor who captured the video of George Floyd’s murder, excavated this dormant silence, causing the world to look deeper at race relations globally. Wiley states, “That is the archaeology I am unearthing: The specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world” (Templon). A fallen hero, typically, is recognized as someone who has fallen in the line of duty and has sacrificed their life in service of others. For example, in the United States, Memorial Day is held to recognize those who have fallen and sacrificed themselves. Monuments have a complex history, mainly as unsettling, deceitful, and exclusionary of anything other than white male power. In recent years, many of them around the world have been petitioned to be removed. Wiley’s statue in the exhibition (see Fig 1), reconceptualizes this history with a fallen hero, a Black man, elegantly slumped over on a horse, his hair pulled back in cornrows, and he is wearing Nike sneakers. Horses in the context of war symbolize freedom and power, yet the subject has not achieved this. Here, the artist explores the incongruity between these signals of power, which is equivalent to unraveling the threads of the Black man in society. What does the Negro know of freedom? Fanon states, “But the Negro knows nothing of the cost of freedom, for he has not fought for it. From time to time, he has fought for liberty and justice, but these were always white liberty and justice” (Keenan 171). In this quote, Fanon elucidates the difference in the Negro’s fight. Black people have not fought for their freedom; they were steeped in servitude and eventually “set free” by a master. However, once they were out into society, they were re-enslaved by the law and the illusion of freedom. 

Yet, this is not the first time the artist has made work in this narrative. Wiley’s Rumors of War (2019) reappropriates the equestrian statue by replacing the figure with a casually dressed, powerful-looking Black man wearing dreadlocks. However, the person holding the horse’s reins is not a king; he is an urban-dressed, young Black man. This statue is 27 feet tall and was originally revealed in Times Square before being moved to Monument Row in Virginia. It is modeled after the statue of J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate army general. The history of portraiture supplies the artist with a landmine of traditions of Western art provided by the Old Masters, along with the history of race, through a present-day lens. On display are pictures of fallen heroes of everyday Black life. In the spirit of being in Venice, the painter imbues the work of the heroes of Venice in Tiepolo’s depictions of battles throughout the history of ancient Rome and in Titian’s pictorial language of Equestrian Portrait of Charles V (1548), commemorating victory in battle against Protestant armies as a reminder of battle and heroics. More recently, the artist examines Holbein’s The Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520–22), which was a graphic stretched portrayal of the son of God being slain, ultimately meeting the fate of everyday men. At the end of this exhibition is one Black man and one Black woman (see Fig 2; only one subject pictured), lying in tombs cast in bronze, memorializing their vulnerability as fallen heroes. Unlike Holbein’s painting, the objects are lying peacefully with their heads turned towards the viewer, calling their gaze into question. This figure represents Black beauty at rest and addresses the ways in which the figure has been represented in Western art as a silent reflection of history. In this way, the object stares back. 

Fig 2.

The term “Quiet as it’s kept” is a vernacular phrase that is commonly used in the American South to signify complete silence or an oath of silence between two people. However, silence in a philosophical sense is not static. In this silence, the Black body becomes a souvenir, forcing viewers of this work against the ugly confrontations of race and colonialism. We know from Wittgenstein that silence is not just the absence of speech; it is a superiority or a transcendence, and its requisite is that of the absence of language. He states, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Wittgenstein 108), which means that what we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence. There is a narrative that runs through this exhibition that speaks to the silence of fallen heroes, examining their loss, sacrifice, and strength through an archaeological study of the history of past civilizations. The portrait paintings of Kehinde Wiley are simultaneously a riposte to and a protraction of the history of art and realism. In his elaborately detailed paintings are decorated backdrops portraying Black subjects in everyday clothing and designer clothing. Typically, his Black male subjects are modeled in poses that resemble Renaissance and Baroque paintings, standing in grandiose postures and embodying a confident demeanor, as seen in his reconfiguration of Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck’s Portrait of Andries Stilte (1639–40). However, in An Archaeology of Silence, his subjects are slain and slumped over as they lie elegantly in rigor mortis. In this silence, the Black body becomes a reminder. On display is a series of violence-prone Black bodies that commemorate those lost. They re-think classical pictorial forms present in Western art history to create a contemporary response of monumental portraiture and objects that reverberate with strength, violence, rhapsody, and the recognition of death in their constant fight to be human, taking the Hegelian dialectic to a new site.

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. “The Negro and Hegel.” Black Skin, White Masks, edited by Dennis King Keenan, SUNY Press, 2004.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, edited by Alan Bloom, Cornell University Press, 1969.

Mbembe, Joseph-Achille, and Laurent Dubois. Critique of Black Reason. Duke University Press, 2017.

Wiley, Kehinde. An Archaeology of Silence. Templon. Url, 2022. 

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Dover, 1999.

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