KehindeWiley on Winslow Homer
“I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description – The subject of this picture is comprised in its title and I will refer these inquisitive School ma’ams to Lieut. Maury [author of the Physical Geography of the Sea] – I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times and I should know something about it. The boat and sharks are outside matters; matters of very little consequence – they have been blown out to sea by a hurricane. You can tell they ladies that the unfortunate hero who is now so dazed and parboiled will be rescued and returned to his friends and home and ever after live happily-” Winslow Homer in response to a request from his dealer, Knoedler, for an explanation of The Gulf Stream.
Refusing to give any explanation, Winslow Homer forces the viewer to come up with his own interpretation of this painting.
In his new show In search of the Miraculous at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, the artist Kehinde Wiley offers his own interpretation of the work of Homer and invites the viewer to revisit a seminal moment in history.
In this show, Wiley also takes inspiration from the work of JWM Turner and Hieronymus Bosch, but I was particularly intrigued by his reference to the fellow American painter.
In 1988, curator Peter H. Wood, Karen C. C. Dalton and Richard J. Powell mounted a traveling exhibition of Homer’s work entitled “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.”
According to Christopher Kent Wilson’s review of the show “Through the perceptive eyes of the artist, we see how Homer perceived many of the critical issues facing Afro-Americans, including emancipation, discrimination, military service, and education.”
Building on the show’s thesis, Wiley seizes this opportunity and uses this narrative to contextualize his discussion of contemporary politics surrounding uprooted cultures.
Art on Life after Slavery
Homer left a prominent illustration career to pursue painting in the 1860s. He first came to fame as a war artist capturing scenes from the front during the Civil War. Hailing from the North, Homer was a Unionist and supported the project to abolish slavery and build a more democratic America.
In his early work he seems to celebrate the modern democratic values of post war American life through happy paintings of country children going to school, women’s participation in the public sphere and the life and culture of African Americans.
In the 1870s he took a trip to Petersburg, Virginia, and produced a series of paintings that portray the lives of an African American community after the Civil War. This series was produced around the same time that Reconstruction was effectively ended. Some scholars have suggested that embedded in this work is a social critique of the Union’s failure to see through the Reconstruction process and “the slow but insidious renewal of black servitude” (Wilson).
Like Wiley, Homer uses costume to express the complexity of African American identity. According to Nicolai Cikovsky, in his painting Dressing for the Carnival, “these figures dressed for a carnival – the older man as Harlequin in the European comedia dell’arte tradition, but, like the taller boy, with torn strips of cloth that derive from the African ceremonial dress – and the two boys who hold American flags, all describe the complexity of its uprooted culture” (Cikovsky, Winslow Homer)
Wilson takes this interpretation a step further writing, “The artist may have been raising questions about black independence after Reconstruction: In the future, will blacks celebrate and truly participate in national independence as symbolized by the American flags, or will they have to revert to their former celebrations of temporary independence as embodied in the Jonkonnu costume” (Wilson, The Journal of American History)
There is a very obvious shift in mood over the course Homer’s life. As if retreating from society, he moves into a cabin in the woods and his main focus becomes landscape. The figures that do make it into his later work are fisherman and hunters (also living outside of modern society).
In 1884 he takes his first trip to the Caribbean, visiting the Bahamas, Cuba and Florida. Over the next 15 years he makes several trips to paint Caribbean fisherman at work. This project culminates in his painting The Gulf Stream.
Like the United States, the Caribbean islands abolished slavery during the 19th century but the region was also facing challenges in their campaign to build a new democratic society. Weather or not it was the artist’s intention, the painting The Gulf Stream evoques the uncertainty that was facing this newly freed population in the Americas.
It is this analogy of the sea as limbo that Wiley transports a century later into his latest body of work In search of the Miraculous.
Kehinde Wiley’s New Series
Wiley is best know as “a man on mission to make blackness visible in a history of art that has ignored people of colour for centuries” (Spence, FT). In his portrait art he replaces the nobility of old Europe with young urban men (and more recently, women).
But this new series is about a lot more than visibility. In this series Wiley gives his subjects a specific geographic location and asks the viewer to build a relationship between person and place.
In an interview with the Financial Times Wiley says, “I am asking the question: is the sea friend or foe?”
For this series, Wiley used a group of Haitian men as his subject. In nine paintings Wiley shows various scenes of his sitters on the shore looking out to rough waters or navigating their boats through a storm.
These images easily evoke hurricanes and issues of migration in the Trump and Brexit era. But by connecting his work to that of Homer, Wiley asks the viewer to step back and consider the whole history of the African diaspora.
“Others might see maritime painting as a really wonderful way of looking at gentlemen’s leisure, or a certain aspect of Western ingenuity and know-how,” Mr. Wiley explained to the New York Times. Yet to him, “the genre evokes an age of exploration that gave rise to sugar-cane fields in Jamaica, cotton fields in South Carolina and rice fields in Georgia,” he said.
In this series Wiley is asking a question about the nature of progress. Weather it be the French Revolution, Haitian Revolution or American Civil War the nineteenth century was defined by civil movements fighting for social equality. Wiley’s new show reminds us that the image portrayed in Homer’s The Gulf Stream can so easily evoque contemporary issues – calling us to question our progress on issues of social equality.
“My work is a contemporary call to arms. It is time to get our mojo back. To rediscover our true north” (Spence, FT).
Kehinde Wiley and Beauty
Wiley is taking on some weighty issues. Yet, in spite of the gravity of his subject he remains positive.
“I stand on the shoulders of those who survived slavery and colonialism. Of those who created jazz, the blues and hip-hop from the most perilous situations” (Nayer, NYT).
Wiley’s work has always been defined by a belief in beauty. His work is sometimes criticized for his idealistic portrayal of his subjects. This series is no exception. Despite the disastrous conditions surrounding the figures in this latest series they maintain their idealised beauty.
In a Guardian review Sky Sherwin comments “Instead of the mad outsiders evoked by Foucault and Fanon, Wiley’s sitters are a sanctioned physical ideal. They seem to have fast-forwarded over any trauma implied by their isolation and those dangerous waters, offering instead the aspirational vision of luminous young black skin that has always obsessed the artist” (Sherwin, The Gaurdian)
But consider how the artist discusses his own upbringing:
” [I had] an amazing childhood, despite what you might think about black struggle and poor neighbourhoods and the ghetto. My mother was an educated budding linguist who really inspired us” (Nayer, NYT).
With this biographical insight we can understand physical beauty as a metaphor for inner strength and the nobility of his subject. Adding yet another level by which to understand these paintings.
One key difference in the painting of Wiley and that of Homer is the subjects response to his situation. In Homer’s work the sitter is portrayed as victim. He is portrayed motionless, presumably awaiting his fate. In Wiley’s In search of the Miraculous series his subject are seen battling the storm. Homer is guilty of a paternalistic view of his subject. Wiley corrects this and shows his subject ready to fight the elements.
In this new series Wiley offers us not only an image of the hardship of a people trying to overcome a colonial past, he does something revolutionary for painting. He breaks the voyeuristic gaze that has defined western painting and asks us to view his subject as they wish to be seen.
Sherwin, Skye. “Kehinde Wiley review – black souls sail between empowerment and exploitation.” The Guardian, Friday 24 November 2017.
Spence, Rachel. “Kehinde Wiley’s contemporary call to arms.” The Financial Times, December 1, 2017.
Nayeri, Farah. “Kehinde Wiley on Painting the Powerless. And a President.” The New York Times, November 27, 2017.
Wilson, Christopher Kent. “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.” The Journal of American History 77, no. 1 (1990): 246-53. doi:10.2307/2078659.
Cikovsky, N., Kelly, F. and Homer, W. (1995). Winslow Homer. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.