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Kehinde Wiley Exhibit Inspires Thought and Feelings of Belonging

Photo: Angela Massino

The Community Idea Stations hosts seasonal interns to assist with the organization's digital initiatives. The internship provides students an opportunity to learn about the public broadcasting world, while helping to further our nonprofit mission to educate, entertain and inspire. The following post is a reflection from our high school intern KeAnna Anglin on the VMFA’s Kehinde Wiley exhibit A New Republic.

If you, or someone you know is interested in a seasonal internship at the Community Idea Stations, please visit our employment page to learn more.

 I am KeAnna Anglin, a rising senior in the Center for Leadership, Government, and Global Economics at Douglas Freeman High School, and the Community Idea Stations newest digital intern. I am excited to join the public broadcasting family and use what I learn to pursue my interests in journalism and communications in college.

On my second day interning at the station, I walked into my mentor's office and saw her chatting excitedly with another intern about the latest exhibit at the VMFA featuring artist Kehinde Wiley. As I sat down, I was told that I would be visiting the exhibit and writing a blog post in response. Now, as a person who isn’t well-versed in the arts, I admit to having a mini mental freakout. At this point, I knew two things. One, I had a lot of  research to do. Two, I had to figure out how I felt about his artwork and why it was important to me. These two tasks would be my focus over the course of the next three days.

When I first set foot into the exhibit I was overwhelmed, but in the best way. The first room consists of huge (almost wall to wall) paintings from his ongoing World Stage series. These works take on a global perspective, highlighting men from the United States, Africa, Israel, India, and numerous other locations. For those unfamiliar with Wiley’s style, he depicts contemporary African-American men using traditional European portraiture. I learned from the PBS documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace that he casts his models by walking the streets and approaching men he feels possess an interesting quality. Wiley then paints the men in their streetwear. This adds a unique element to his artwork, considering that his inspiration - European portraiture - traditionally features aristocratic men and women in formal, custom-made clothing.

As I studied Wiley’s paintings more intently, I began to notice the way he keeps the elements within each portrait unique to the individual. Rather than replacing the model’s urban streetwear with leather tunics or silk cloaks, he glorifies the clothing with its organicness. The juxtaposition of black men posing in a traditional European fashion against an ornate background, speaks to the notion that beauty can be found anywhere and in anyone. Art is a verb, a form of expression, and when I look at Wiley’s paintings, I see expression and I feel emotion.

I believe the popularity of his artwork and the strength in his techniques stem from a vision of taking everyday African-American men and women and glorifying the dress and attitudes that are true to these individuals. These paintings are him recognizing the negative and/or lack of portrayal of African-Americans within the artistic community and in the media in general. As I previously mentioned, there is not much I know about art, but with his paintings, it didn’t matter. I could look at the artwork and imagine the story behind the person in the painting.

As a young adult, I am constantly encountering different people, ideas, and walks of life on a daily basis. Each moment and interaction is a learning opportunity and a time for critical thinking, and Wiley’s work does exactly that. It inspires you to question your perception of people and definition of beauty. It challenges you to pay closer attention to the people you pass everyday. It demands you to recognize the fact that everyone has a story. Throughout the exhibit, you are guaranteed to experience the diversity of cultures, the onset of emotion, and the evocation of deep-thought and questioning. These are experiences I believe many Richmonders value, and the Kehinde Wiley exhibit A New Republic provides.

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is open at the VMFA through September 5, 2016.