Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Multicultural Art Education: Inspiration from Kehinde Wiley

This semester I am enrolled in a Multicultural Art Education course. I think I expected to learn how to use art and artists from "other" cultures- meaning "other" countries- in my lesson plans but I was pleasantly surprised with the focus on contemporary artists and the idea of my students' individual cultures playing in to the term. We read textbook chapters but we also watched some great videos, including Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk, The danger of a single story and a short film, Identity. We've also discussed gender issues, representations of beauty in the media, and more.

     For our final project, we were to choose a contemporary "multicultural" artist whose work interested us and create a work of art inspired by them. I was in the mood for a portrait so I chose Kehinde Wiley. Wiley's portraits definitely make you stop and look. Before I read anything about his work, I was just drawn to the patterns and detail of his figures. I noticed that all of the models fit into minority groups and I noticed that some of the poses seemed familiar. After doing some reading and watching a PBS documentary about a series of paintings Kehinde Wiley was working on, I learned that his idea of painting minority figures in poses pulled from grand paintings in art history is in response to visiting art museums as a child and not seeing anyone that looked like him. Wiley is intentionally claiming a place for those minority figures, usually absent from art history, and he is being very bold about it. 
     The figures in the paintings are not just placeholders- they are powerful! Though the pose comes from art history and the attention paid to rendering the portrait is also reminiscent of the strong history of portraits, the rest of the painting is very contemporary. The models, whom Wiley finds and casts while walking the streets of Harlem or other locations from which he is working, choose how to present themselves to be photographed. The models are most often photographed wearing their street clothes; the models control how their identity will be portrayed. The other contemporary twist on Wiley’s paintings is that he replaces the scenery of the background with ornate decorative motifs, which remove from the painting "any sense of place or location" (http://kehindewiley.com/about/)
     Though there are some women in Wiley’s paintings, including an entire series entitled “An Economy of Grace”, most of his portraits are of young men. Instead of using a male model, I wanted to empower one of my female students. I think being asked to model was a confidence boost for the students who posed for me. It was like telling them, “Yes, you, YOU, are worthy of this. You are worth recording in paint, just as you are.”
         I came up with a short list of works from art history and visual culture that featured women and photographed several students in those poses. The images I referenced were Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665), the “Nefertiti Bust” (New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, 1340 BC), Nickolas Muray’s 1939 photo of Frida Kahlo, “Frida on a White Bench”, and the “We Can Do It!” (1943) propaganda poster created by J. Howard Miller during WWII.
One of the first "sketches"
     After reviewing my reference photos, I quickly narrowed it down to one student, a 5th grader named Jaliah, who had the right “girl power” attitude I was looking for in the photos. I played with ideas to turn in my first set of “sketches” created in Adobe Photoshop to receive feedback from my classmates. In the first set of sketches, I was undecided on how to handle the background so I tried several ideas. I love the patterns that Wiley uses in his paintings but I didn’t want to copy his style too closely.
     I photographed Jaliah a second time when she was wearing her favorite colorful jacket. It is much easier to roll up a real long sleeve than a short one so it made more sense in the “We Can Do It!” pose, which is the idea I chose.  I took the advice of my classmates and went with a patterned background created from manipulating a WWII era textile print.

     I took a note from Kehinde Wiley and used a projector to trace the composition on to my canvas- two photos were merged to use the face from one and the body from the other, and the altered textile print. I painted the patterned background first, using acrylic paints for a speedier drying time.
Next, I started working on the skin tone, layering in colors of oil paint.
When the skin was mostly complete, I started to work on the fabric.
I continued to work on the skin and the face, making small adjustments.
Overall, I am very pleased with the finished painting. Other than some murals, this was the most time-intensive painting I’ve ever made, timed at a minimum of 18 hours just physically painting and who knows how many in planning.
I knew something was off just a little bit. The painting of Jaliah looks older than a 5th grader. When I saw her standing next to it, I finally realized that I had a slightly different angle on the face and the body photos I merged, making her face look fuller and her look more mature. I showed the painting to Jaliah and the rest of her class and after we convinced them that I really did paint HER, she exclaimed “but I suuuuure do look like a woman!” I think the goal of empowering a student through this project was achieved. I’m titling the painting “Jaliah Can Do It."

Johnson, L., Chermayeff, M., Chermayeff, J., Veselic, A. (2014). Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace [Television series episode]. In PBS Arts. PBS.

Kehinde Wiley Studio KW Studio. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.kehindewiley.com/about/

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