In San Francisco, Kehinde Wiley Stages an Elegy to Victims of Racial Violence


This Saturday, “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence” opens at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, situating 26 paintings and bronzes by Wiley—a modern master of the portrait form—in an ancient pictorial tradition: the art of the fallen figure. 

The show, which makes its US debut after a presentation in Venice during last year’s Biennale, continues Wiley’s Down series from 2008, works in oil inspired by Hans Holbein the Younger’s startling The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520–1522). In those paintings, as in “An Archaeology of Silence,” Wiley reimagines depictions of Christ and other wounded, dead, or otherwise recumbent figures with contemporary Black men (and, in the latter case, women) as his subjects. The police killing of George Floyd in 2020 gave the project a fresh urgency; Wiley has called the new show an “archeology of untold stories and lives wasted” by systemic racial violence. 

“In the context of the Bay Area’s long and vital history of resisting violence against Black and Brown people, from the founding of the Black Panther Party to the current Black Lives Matter movement and beyond, ‘Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence’ has a particular and powerful resonance,” says Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The show arrives at the de Young with support from, Google’s nonprofit operation, and the Ford Foundation.

In its works, all created between 2021 and 2022, Wiley quotes from paintings and sculptures by the likes of Édouard Manet, John Vanderlyn, Alexandre Falguière, and Auguste Clésinger, rendering the persecution and suffering of the so-called “Black body”—a term that is grimly apt in this context—in iconic, even monumental terms. With their braided hair, hoop earrings, hoodies, and sneakers, some of Wiley’s figures lie prone in the grass or in a tomb, while others appear doubled over in anguish. (One such bronze, Youth Mourning, was inspired by a George Clausen canvas reflecting the horrors of World War I.)

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