Check out Kehinde Wiley’s new series of presidential portraits that depict African heads of state with an ornate ‘vocabulary of power’

by MMC
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The artist’s new work, which he has been working on quietly since 2012, debuted today in Paris.

Portrait of Olusegun Abasanjo, former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (2023) exhibited at “Kehinde Wiley: A Maze of Power” at Quai Branly – Musée Jacques Chirac in Paris, 2023. Photo: Julien de Rosa/AFP via Getty Images.

A new series of presidential portraits by Kehinde Wiley has just been exhibited in Paris, but you won’t find Barack Obama’s face there. Instead, ornate paintings of Macky Sall, Nana Akufo-Addo and other African heads of state are on display.

These make up Wiley’s “A Maze of Power” series, which the artist has been working on quietly since 2012, years before he was hired by President Obama. The new artworks are, in Wiley’s words, an effort to look at African presidencies through the prism of Western European art history.

“What happens when we use the language of aesthetic domination in the context of Africa 21?st century?” says the artist in a short film he made to accompany the project. “Is it possible to use the language of empire, as it relates to painting, in an African context, and come out the other side with something completely new? This body of work assumes that there is.

The portraits debuted today in an exhibition sponsored by Galerie Templon. exposure at the Quai Branly Museum – Jacques Chirac. Among those depicted in the show are Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria; Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the former leader of Madagascar; and Félix Tshisekedi, the current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Wiley, who initially aimed to paint all 54 African presidents, visited each of his subjects on their home turf, at sites of their choosing. He brought with him a book of aristocratic, noble and military portraits from the 17th to the 19th centuries, introducing what he called a “vocabulary of power with which each of the presidents could choose to work or ignore.”

View of the installation “Kehinde Wiley: A labyrinth of power” at Quai Branly – Musée Jacques Chirac in Paris, 2023. Photo: Julien de Rosa/AFP via Getty Images.

The “labyrinth of power” referred to in the exhibition’s title is that which exists between Wiley and his subjects, the artist explained. “The labyrinth of power is the labyrinth that I manage, me the artist, but also the model – the model who decides how he wants to be seen, me who responds to his set of decisions,” Wiley said in his film. “Each of us responds to a received story of image-making, of power, and how art functions within that dynamic.”

Portrait of Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of Congo (2023) exhibited at “Kehinde Wiley: A Maze of Power” at Quai Branly – Musée Jacques Chirac in Paris, 2023. Photo: Julien de Rosa/AFP via Getty Images.

In producing his series, Wiley made it a point not to talk about politics, just about images. The series, he explained, is not a “celebration of individual leaders” but a “look at the presidency itself.”

“The very fact of creating a series of portraits in Europe, and now using this language in Africa, creates an… interesting provocation,” the artist continued. “It’s an invitation for the viewer to expand the possibilities of what it means to look at art in Africa, about Africa and about power.”

“Kehinde Wiley: A Maze of Power” is on view at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, 37 Quai Jacques Chirac, Paris, France, until January 14, 2024.

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