Keeping it Local: Kehinde Wiley at Brooklyn Museum

Visiting New York's museums is somewhat of an art in itself; weekends tend to be entirely packed and weekday closing time hits before most can hustle out of work. Enter Thursday nights at the Brooklyn Museum. Galleries remain open until 10pm and crowds are usually sparse, rewarding savvy visitors with an immersive experience.

We checked out the Kehinde Wiley exhibition a few weeks back and I was thoroughly impressed. Wiley's style wasn't foreign to me; his fresh takes on Old World portraits is pretty recognizable. But his process and motivation behind the pieces came as news, and shifted my naive perception of his work from "fun" and "hip" to truly exceptional.

In the most simplistic terms, Wiley, inspired by the fact that black people have traditionally been absent from classical artwork aside from slave portrayals, street casts subjects and inserts them into an Old Master piece of their choice, repurposing and transforming traditional historic portraiture in a novel, personal way.

I recommend reading up on this dude's style, his travels, and his process. Not only is he a highly skilled painter, he's sort of a brilliant cultural analyst. In a world where everything seems to have been done before, his work still feels new. Gotta love that.

But perhaps my most lasting - and haunting - takeaway from the exhibition was in response a 2006 rendition of a young boy's mugshot. After finding a crumbled up wanted poster with the face of a youth offender on a street in Harlem, Wiley began questioning how his fate - and those of countless others - could have been different had we seen him as a promising mind rather than a societal menace. The recent racially charged political uprisings immediately reminded me of this piece and its message. Challenging our systems is equally as critical an exercise as criminalizing individuals who allegedly threaten them. This boy looked like a regular teenager, emotional and a bit uncomfortable, perhaps with a touch of innocence still in tact. And what if he was just that?

I'll spare you any further political chatter, though I can't help but extrapolate on a simpler level and wonder how often my own predispositions - around style, weight, sex - affect my personal interactions. Going to really bring this full circle here and say that traveling, and in traveling getting to know the varying routines others call life, has a wonderful way of quelling biases. I never cease to be amazed by the uncanny similarities that can exist between one's life and the lives of those with whom we have seemingly zilch in common, aside from our basic humanity. 

Any Thursday night that can elicit these kinds of powerful reflections is an evening well spent in my book. The Kehinde exhibition is on view until May 23, so be sure to head over there stat! And in case your NYC Coachella weekend was less productive than prescribed, ya'll can get a double dose of Kehinde and Basquiat for a few weeks longer. 

Mugshot Series, 2006