“Louis XIV of France,” (2014). Oil on canvas. 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City.
“Portrait of Dyouany Beretie Verly,” (2014). Oil on canvas. 36 x 28 inches. Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City.
“The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte,” (2014). Oil on canvas. 84 x 63 inches. Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City.
In Conversation with Filmmaker Terence Nance
On the eve of Wiley’s latest exhibit, The World Stage: Haiti, on view at Roberts & Tilton through October, the painter talks stick-to-it-ness, supporting his art habit, and bestowing value upon the creative act.
Kehinde Wiley: And what further matters more is there’s the educational process of every artist of color in this country—and increasingly in the world—where there’s a political expectation pre-assumed, presupposed upon each one of those young artists. And I’m wondering—and I wondered many years ago—whether or not it was ever possible to create work outside of the politicized vacuum. And the answer of course is: No. If I were to paint a bowl of fruit, it would be an African American male painting a bowl of fruit. And there’s a certain rubric through which we see that. Every utterance that we make is politicized on some level.
Terence Nance: Are you saying that you think it’s impossible for you or impossible [for everyone]?
KW: I think it’s impossible for heterosexual white men of the global north to create apolitical work. Ultimately that’s not a very interesting place for me, necessarily. In my own work I try to focus a bit more on the poetic and take the political for granted. Almost as though we would arrive there naturally, so how about moving closer towards something a little bit more mysterious or ineffable, something that can’t be described in a simple set of absolutes.
TN: I think that’s important from a psychological standpoint, for my sanity: to approach things through a kind of poetic, creative instinct where it’s about experience—and, as you were saying—default political. There’s a weird anxiety around that decision. What you’re saying about the sort of assumed political nature of all work is also used as a means to kind of agitating the black artist—or any artist—who is making work where their identity is made explicit. It’s a way of saying, “Are you doing it or are you not?”
KW: As an artist yourself, I’m sure you recognize when you’re starting to write or to think about your own creative process, you know that there are conflicting urges, or these clinging desires, that start to emerge, and it’s never possible to negotiate them at the same time. The creative process is just as mysterious as the people who create. So why can’t we own all of those positions: decadent, self-consuming, and myopic? Much more of an all-encompassing overview of the globe as we see it. All of those ways of seeing can be embraced and so: twinning, coupling, is a constant theme with me. I happen to physically be a twin. I have a twin brother. My name means being second born of twins. This notion of twin images and twin conceptual concerns being embraced, inhabited, and wanted is entirely native for me.
TN: I try on some level to use it as a means of tricking people. Use it to humorous effects. The idea that these two kinds of considerations are being imbued into the creative process.
There are a million artist examples of this bait and switching the identity of the artist to imbue the work with a different cultural context—and thus meaning, and thus reception—and the joke of that. I think that’s the most fulfilling and that’s the most interesting way of engaging for me personally: On some level, how can I make a joke of it? How can I make it funny?
KW: Yes, and there should be some levity to what you do. I mean, why wake up in the morning and go with this every day if there are not celebrations around you?
TN: Your twin brother is an artist?
KW: No, no. We actually studied art as kids together but he moved on to study writing and medicine. Now he’s in business. You know, two different walks of life, but it’s interesting, he was the better artist of the family when we were kids. There’s a certain amount of stick-to-it-ness, I think, it’s a part of the creative process. You have to either have a passion for something or not. I don’t know if it has to do with aptitude. I’m a pretty decent writer, but I don’t think I’m the candidate for the next Great American Novel any time soon. I think you have to be able to find that space where, not only are you comfortable with the material act of doing it, but it—for some reason—fits. And for me, it’s art.
TN: Taking in what’s around me: the people around me and the energy that I am always fascinated by; that practice that inspires discipline in someone. It inspires them to basically become a shark, to become single-mindedly obsessed with moving forward within it or moving through it. [At this point Wiley agrees.] I have two brothers who are really close to my age, and we’re all pursuing literally the same thing. I think a good example would be my mother. She’s an actress and a movie director. Moving through a clear path and inspiring in us a type of positive expression or discipline is something that I took for granted. And now seeing other people around me, like “try this, try that, try that” and then finally hit on that thing that pushes them, that transforms them.
You said you came to it through cooking, which really surprised me. What you do is so ancient, within your way of seeing the world. [And] you came to it through something else.
KW: Well, I came through it initially through cooking [because] I had no idea that I would even be able to buy paint. So I had to figure out how to make money and how to support my art habit. There was no expectation that this would ever become anything. There’s a certain type of person that’s willing to throw their life away—if you want to see it in those terms. A certain type of person who has the stick-to-it-ness around what they love, and that’s their value. Their value is oriented toward their creative act, rather than the type of socially accepted recompense that so much of society tells you is what you should be aiming for. That’s a special place to be and the spaces that artists have inhabited within the society—or [societies] much more ancient—have historically been those who are on the liminal side. Artists have always functioned as tricksters, inside/outside individuals who recognize the society and its mores—but they also want to be able to point to it from an arm’s distance. And I think what you were speaking about earlier with regards to the ways that art can be both embracing society and critical of it. Critical and complicit are key to understanding contemporary art but also very ancient art, specifically the work of young African American artists in this country who, given that so much of what they’ve been spoon-fed—and much of what we’ve been spoon-fed as cultural consumers and producers—has been that we ourselves, the black bodies, lie on the periphery. And if you reside in the periphery in a doubled way, you can’t expect or you can’t help but see the center of something as a bit of a stranger.
TN: What does one say to that? That’s a drop the mic moment.
It’s this weird double consciousness of being socially peripheral—especially in America—but also being culturally central. I remember years ago I was watching CNN, or [some other] cable news channel, and the interstitial music was 50 Cent “In Da Club,” and I remember thinking, a moment is happening here where a certain blackness has been normalized in American-ness that has not—and I don’t think will ever—enable a social or economic centrality. So I think that mixed messaging is really what’s resonating with me, the idea that, with what’s going on now, with what’s always been going on, this continuity between Jim Crow and Ferguson and whatever will happen next week. That on-going Othering and social-outsider feeling, does not rock with the fascination America and the hegemonic cultural structure has with blackness as a cultural framework. I think that’s on some level the strangest and most disrupting for me, because cultural framework is what makes all the money and the consistent appropriation of that is—on some level—another way of pulling a part of us in while pushing the rest of us out.