Kehinde Wiley, 'The World Stage: Israel' at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, USA

Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977) has turned the art of portraiture into an international cultural performance, reordering connections between art and politics, and between power and class, by creating grand portraits of black urban men from around the world. One of today's most globally-focused artists, he is known for his bold series The World Stage, which simultaneously explores the black diaspora and the international phenomenon of urban youth culture in which his models find their identity.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Wiley studied art as a youth and savored visits to local museums, including the prestigious Huntington Library art collections, near Pasadena, which introduced him to traditional European fine art, especially portraiture. "I loved the Huntington . . .," he recalls. "Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Constable were some of my favorites. . . . It was sheer spectacle and, of course, beauty."

Following graduation from high school, Wiley enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1995. While there he read widely on art theory and studied African, African American, ethnocentric, and queer cultures. Especially influential was Richard Dyer's 1997 book White: Essays on Race and Culture, which enabled Wiley to see how whiteness, over time, had come to be associated with purity, light, rationality, and the sublime. By contrast, blackness was equated with the unknown, irrationality, and the disenfranchised. During this period, Wiley sharpened his awareness of black marginalization in society, particularly in the Western tradition of art. He later observed, "I try to use the black body in my work to counter the absence of that body in museum spaces throughout the world."

After graduating from the SFAI in 1999, Wiley attended graduate school at Yale University, where he received his master's degree in 2001. Shortly thereafter, he spent a critical period at The Studio Museum, in Harlem, as an artist-in-residence. Intrigued by the bravado taking place on the streets and the style of inventive, African American dress, Wiley began focusing on portraits of young men from the neighborhood. These hyper-realistically detailed paintings immediately caught the art world's attention when they were exhibited beginning in 2003. In these portraits, Wiley consciously evokes the visual vocabulary of aristocratic Western European portraiture while his models appear in jeans, T-shirts, or basketball jerseys.

Beginning in 2006 Wiley expanded his vision with The World Stage series, traveling the globe for his subject matter-China, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Nigeria, and Senegal-discovering his subject matter in the byways of New Delhi and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. For each unique series, Wiley maps his subjects within their urban environments and explores their local culture, incorporating into his portraits aspects of regional history, traditional patterns and designs, and sly nods to the social and political milieu in which his models live. In a painting from Senegal, for example, he was inspired by a Dogon sculpture of a husband and wife which he reimagined into a portrait of two Senegalese men. In works from China, he depicts his black subjects in triumphant stances recalling Mao's Cultural Revolution.

The World Stage: Israel features men the artist met in 2010. Wiley scouted his models in malls, bars, and sporting venues in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Lod, through what he calls "street casting." The men he depicts are from diverse religions and ethnicities-Israeli Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and Israeli Arabs-but all share the same alpha-male presence essential to the artist's vision. "I look for people who possess a certain type of power in the streets," Wiley explains.

Wiley's adoption of religious Jewish designs in his paintings creates a stunning new context for these historical motifs. Examples of the types of traditional artifacts that inspired Wiley-elaborately decorated Torah ark curtains, marriage contracts (ketubbot), and religious paper plaques (shiviti)-are included in the exhibition to prompt a dialogue between Jewish history and contemporary Israeli life. The Hebrew blessings and biblically-sourced symbols of flora and fauna appearing in Wiley's colorful portraits are dramatically enlarged and vividly rendered, foregrounding the beauty of their forms and renewing their value as art.

Wiley presents a kaleidoscopic picture of contemporary Israeli diversity, a society at the physical and symbolic intersection of Africa, Europe, and Asia, struggling with deep political issues while still functioning as a global center for cultural interchange. As Wiley's paintings reveal, Israel-a country smaller than New Jersey-is more ethnically diverse and globally attuned than most people realize. It is home to Jews from Arab lands who fled Muslim countries, Ethiopian Jews with dreadlocks, and a gay community with a distinctive international voice. "I wanted to mine where the world is right now," Wiley explains, "and chart the presence of black and brown people throughout the world."

-Karen Tsujimoto, Curator

The exhibition runs from 26 February until 27 May 2013

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