The Genteel
March 7, 2021



From Aunt Jemima to hyper-sexualised video vixens, mainstream depictions of Black women are littered with stereotypes. An Economy of Grace, an exhibit running at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City, is artist Kehinde Wiley's stunning effort to challenge similar misconceptions through the use of portraiture.

In all of the exhibit's paintings, the models exude a vibrant and regal quality. There is none of the eclectic, afro-donning, power fist up, baby-tied-to-the-back-of-an-African-mother type of imagery that I've come to expect. No, the women featured in An Economy of Grace looked sassy and sophisticated. I could imagine myself meeting up with them to go shopping in SoHo or grabbing Sunday brunch together in our dolled-up glory.

Evidently, Wiley dipped his brushes to proclaim a simple declaration: Black women belong to the classic definition of beauty. They, like 19th century French socialites, can be desired, framed, put in costume, idolised and portrayed with an assured sense of worth.

Intellectually, I know this; I know that it's entirely plausible to have a Black woman framed in costume, who looks like she has had money all of her life. But visually? It was quite a spectacle to process.

If the Sean Kelly Gallery was a club, these models looked as though they owned the VIP list and bouncers.

"America, with its history of slavery and Europe, with its history of colonisation, both contributed to negative images of Black women in the fine arts, which were used as propaganda to justify each of their different causes and political agenda," explains Dr Barbara Thompson, curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, in an interview with The Genteel.

Wiley's work, in part, belongs to a long tradition of Black artists who have used their mediums to dispel myths and give voice to the complexity of Black women. Whether it was the Harlem Renaissance or Jean-Michel Basquiat, art, for Black people, was and is a necessary tool to fight bigotry, inspire hope and reconfigure demeaning portrayals.

"I think the fine arts have always been able to dignify women and counter stereotypes," says Dr Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. In a phone interview with me, fresh from a press luncheon, she affirms, "The sheer talent of Black artists is helping to fill new critical needs."

Contemporary artists, like Wiley, are not only helping to address controversial subject matter but also forcing mainstream art buyers to take stock of their own collections. A leading authority on African-American art collections, Dr Halima Taha pointed out to me, "African-American art is American art…serious collectors [of American art] are now beginning to realise the historic gaps in their own collections."

Wiley's portraits command your attention. Each model stares back at you with an air of haughtiness; they smirk and gaze with arched eyebrows, as if to say, "and you are?" If the Sean Kelly Gallery was a club, these models looked as though they owned the VIP list and bouncers.

Dacia Carter 2012, Oil on Canvas.

To craft the portraits for An Economy of Grace, the Nigerian-American artist teamed up with Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy's creative director. Tisci designed a different costume dress for each model, but not before travelling to Paris with Wiley. Together, they studied the galleries of the Louvre, and drew inspiration from 19th century European painters like Jacques-Louis David and John Singer Sargent.

Just like his work with Santigold's latest album (Master of My Make-Believe) cover, Wiley took his understanding of various historic influences and remixed them with a bombastic, street aesthetic. The women featured in the collection were discovered randomly by Wiley, along the cross streets of New York City. Their own personal stories will soon be told in an upcoming documentary produced in collaboration with award-winning filmmaker, Jeff Dupre.

An Economy of Grace serves as a refreshing prompt to expect more. Wiley seems to be telling me, and the rest of the world, that the adoration of reality television "basketball wives," airbrushed and homogenised magazine covers or blockbuster movies starring Black maids is not all there is. Each portrait poses a question, asking us to re-imagine Black femininity, and to consider what could take flight beyond customary pigeonholes.

An Economy of Grace runs until June 16, 2012 at the Sean Kelly Gallery.



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