Kehinde Wiley; Masterful Evening

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“Now then, how about you?” Wiley asks politely, “What do you think about that demeaning cover?”

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There’s a full moon. Wednesday, after 7; it’s one of, “those kinds of nights.”

You know the sort that I like! What a delight it is; being up, after dark, with an elegant assortment of intelligent and attractive people. Some are awash in the fine spirits offered. Everyone is grooving to the beat. Whatever it takes, all are expecting to have a good time; are even eager, to cut loose a little.

The occasion is the Studio Museum’s opening for the exhibition, The World Stage: Africa Lagos-Dakar. It features the refined, referential, and the deceptively decorative paintings of Kehinde Wiley.

He’s looking exceedingly good too. So cool, in his hot white suit, perfectly matching the sultry summer’s evening. It’s worn with the pointiest kick-ass shoes you’ve ever seen. Better still, aside from sartorial excellence, Wiley is that rarest type of person possible to encounter in New York.


A scholar with exceptional ability, he’s completely down to earth. Widely celebrated for beautiful paintings, highly mannered but imbued with deep meaning, he is always happy to help whomever he can.

It’s 8:30. Filled to capacity, the museum’s buzzing galleries, the improvised discothèque throbbing outside below a tent in the sculpture garden, are both beginning to be abandoned. That is, at least by a select group of 200. We are invited to dinner and for still more dancing at the after-party.

Beneath a soaring barrel-vault, the setting is Harlem’s historic Alhambra. In the 1930’s, singing with the diminutive bandleader, “Chick” Webb, this was where Ella Fitzgerald started out.

Vibrant bouquets on each table combine orange orchids and lush roses with yellow tulips and chartreuse foliage. The rousing band is first-rate. Then there comes the enormous, delicious dinner, supplied by the one, the only, Norma Jean Darden.


Grilled salmon, baked ham, roast turkey, collard greens, coleslaw, the most marvelous macaroni and cheese; dare one to wonder why, the second we finish, everyone leaps to the dance floor? It is not, I can assure you, just to await the arrival of sweet potato pie and butter-crème frosted red velvet cake.

Imagine it; we have gathered to fete the great artist. All present are dying to speak with, to be photographed next to, Kehinde Wiley. However for a full 10 minutes, so that you might learn how he feels, instead, he talks with me.

“What,” I ask Wiley, “do you think about the New Yorker’s Obama cover?” How odd, you might think, my not asking about his work? Yet, committed to showing people in a particular way, Wiley’s art is actually at the forefront of our discussion.

“You can easily see the attempt at satirizing each and every baseless charge against them,” he says. “Only, it didn’t work, did it? Satire; it’s supposed to be about ridiculing villainy or injustice. But instead, we have two heroic figures, who are victims of a huge smear campaign and they are the very ones who are being targeted to make fun of.”

Part of what gives our dialogue such moment, is knowing a little about how Wiley goes about his work. He appropriates the elegant props and poses of the most dynamic, grand manner European portraiture.

Hip-hop devotees, fresh from Brooklyn, Bronx or Harlem streets and now, otherwise anonymous African youth, are thus invested by him with the same considerable aura and dignity once reserved to portray long gone aristocrats—the very people who first oppressed our enslaved ancestors.

So, while hardly satirical, Wiley’s portraits, nevertheless, are a kind of ingeniously conceived indictment. “Now then, how about you?” Wiley asks politely, “What do you think about that demeaning cover?”

Lovely Thelma Golden, The Studio Museum’s curator, bedecked, I believe, in one of her new husband, designer Duro Olowu’s arresting frocks, has looked so pleased through the entire proceedings tonight. But then I think I detect a fretful smile, directed my way. So though reluctant to end such an enlightened exchange, I purposefully shorten my response. The guest of honor, after all, has a throng of admirers impatient to wish him well.

“Yea, I agree!”  
 
Think of the hub-hub, were the Black Star News to publish a cartoon that showed Mayor Bloomberg as Shylock? Sure, plenty of people would get it; that it was a denunciation of the heartless cruelty of the mayor’s policies. Lots would even agree that they also oppose his abuse of government, to summarily uproot and displace people of color and the none-rich, without recourse, all over the city.

Then again, such a representation, unavoidably, is loaded with so many dark associations. Centuries of hateful Christian dogma or Nazi propaganda, make it impossible to depict a Jewish person that way; to have such a characterization not have an entirely different meaning.

As Jesse Jackson’s found out, again, should one mistakenly say the wrong thing, in the wrong way—that’s it! Good, bad or indifferent, whatever comes next, it’s bound to be dismissed.

Just in time, we concluded our chat moments before a dance troupe from the legendary House of Extravaganza caused the crowd to bound to our feet; we clap wildly as we Vogue with élan.

“Why though, how is this any better now, than when it’s done in the Village, on the pier?” I ask acclaimed journalist Emil Wilberkin.

 “This is the fabulous old Alhambra,” he responds, with mock solemnity. 

So many incredibly famous people have appeared here. At the pier, that’s just dancers on the streets. While this; it’s dancing in the footsteps of greatness. And, as you know, everything is all about context and perception.

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