Courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, 2011

The history of the black man in Indian painting is sparse, dramatic and frequently violent. The Deccani miniatures of the seventeenth century, painted in the wealthy Muslim kingdom of Ahmednagar, reveal a black courtier clad in a white Muslin jama and cap, his presence a marker of the cosmopolitanism of the medieval potentates’ courts. It is believed that there are only eight portraits of this sort, depicting court ministers or ambassadors from the Arabian-African continent. Within them, however, a single figure appears, like a historic transgression, creating thereby a space for an alternate heroism. Malik Ambar (1549-1626), the Harare-born Ethiopian slave who was bought as a child by an Arab merchant in Baghdad and then taken to the Deccan, had a chequered history. He entered India as a slave, becoming one of the thousands of habshis as they were known in the Sultanates of Bijapur and Ahmednagar. He gradually rose to the position of Regent of Ahmednagar, commandeering 50,000 men, and later became Prime Minister of the Deccani kingdom. Ambar’s portrait by the Mughal painter Hashem (c. 1624-25), now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, conveys his strong authoritative personality, reflecting his role as the supreme challenger of Mughal authority in its spread to south India. His end, however, was violent: a painting by Abul Hasan, dated 1616, from the Chester Beatty collection, reveals Emperor Jehangir shooting an arrow towards Ambar’s decapitated head.

A more proximate model is Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth-century traveller who journeyed through the Islamic world. Battuta was promoted by his employer to become ambassador to the Yuan kingdom in China. His stay in India coincided with Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s reign as well as that of Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire. However, while Battuta now has a shopping mall named after him in Dubai, we hardly find any reference to him in paintings.

As a subject of art, the black man in brownation [1] is a complex figure. He is usually mediated through the West’s Orientalizing gaze and received through the long white route that traverses Europe’s histories and colonial literature. The European worldview, as colonizer and moral arbiter of subject races, has led to the postcolonial binary between subject and ruler and the exclusion of links between the colonized. Inevitably, the complicit gaze of the white master race is embedded in histories of shared oppression and nationalism, both black and Asian, from Gandhi to Mandela.

Kehinde Wiley in India is something of an artistic conundrum then. As a black man from a dominant global power, he complicates issues of race and masculinity in his paintings, and by extension, of art history and power relations. There is a geographical trajectory here that compels a certain worldview. Wiley’s work as a portraitist centres around the figure of the young black/brown man who cartographically shifts from the streets of Harlem to Nigeria, China, Brazil, and now India and Sri Lanka.

Wiley’s work methods engage a particular empirical strategy. Drawing from museum sources and the grand Western canon, he reworks iconic images by substituting young black men as their unlikely, but entirely credible subjects. With this intervention, he sets into motion the dismantling of power structures. The museum and its repositories as the living history of people at the apex of the ruling classes is unpacked to reveal the historic appropriations of power. Appropriately, Wiley arrives at his chosen field of enquiry through the democratic medium of photography, the instrument that puts the facility of the candid portrait within universal reach.

In a series of paintings that effectively travel from Western museums to the heart of Asia, Wiley employs a highly performative style of representation. One may think here of Cindy Sherman, Takashi Murakami or other artists who perform the artistic/historical subject. Wiley's position, however, is informed by the postcolonial and the subaltern. [2] In the Columbus series, black men ironically enact roles traditionally denied to them-nobleman, saint, prophet-and inhabit those roles with convincing aplomb. With this series, Wiley achieves his stated aim to interrogate and “brutalize” the supposed authority of art history-“to consume it, empty it out, and posit something that is completely unexpected and different. And that would be the black body in fine art, in painting.” [3]

Here then, performativity invokes history, class, economies and identity within extraordinarily productive cross-purposes. In the introduction to Performativity and Performance, Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick write, “performativity has enabled a powerful appreciation of the ways that identities are constructed iteratively through complex citational processes.” [4] Performativity not only implies the actual process of ‘staging’ a work or its historical address through a choice of backdrop, it also signals a philosophical and social position: a site where the “Other” exchanges his subjective space for a different one-however fleetingly-in a moment of displacement and appropriation.

Shifting his attention to Asia, Kehinde Wiley has moved from his roots in Nigeria and the racial profile of the black man in America to the newly emergent markets-and ancient civilizations-of China and now India.

Wiley writes: “One of the things that I wanted to do in the work specifically with regard to India was to remove any notion of the ‘authentic’ from the conversation, and in so doing, look specifically at Orientalist paintings which become the rubric through which we begin that conversation. We see that recapitulated in these paintings in a way that is neutral. Neither revisionist nor recapitulating the ills of the past, it occupies a type of third ‘space’.”[5] Clearly the artist is engaging in several, simultaneous cultural readings. One of them is the Western Orientalist gaze as it rests on India. Edward Said has spoken of the construction of ancient India as the “good Orient”-in comparison to the Arab civilization-a kind of Edenic fantasy that competed with Egypt as an authentic civilization. Said goes on to describe the nineteenth-century European Orientalist’s view of India (within Asia):

“Asia has its prophets, Europe its doctors.... As a scholarly attitude the picture is of a learned Westerner surveying as if from a particularly suited vantage point the passive, seminal, even silent and supine East and then going on to articulate the East....”[6]

Do Wiley's portraits challenge the notion of a passive, supine India, situated within the vast, mysterious, feminized and exotic Orient that seduces even as it devours? Or do they restore to India and Asia Western terms of reference? My reading is that they do neither. Wiley instead pushes for a different dimension ofrecognition. Wiley’s India paintings take young men of the street and accord them a heroic cast. Casually dressed in t-shirts and hawai chappals, any one of them could be an unemployed youth familiar from the streets of Mumbai or Bangalore. Or they could be Goa’s beach boys, car cleaners from the streets of Tamil Nadu, or young Adivasis (tribals) serving in the capital’s diplomatic enclave. Wiley’s subjects could be any of these. Meanwhile, the settings they inhabit in the paintings-temples or prayer rooms, or studios with fanciful backdrops-are the sites of mass engagement, places that offer the seductions of spectacle and the hope of a better tomorrow. The larger question that Wiley raises for people of colour is how do we represent ourselves? Is it through the Orientalizing gaze of Western academic training or through the restless energies of popular art? What Wiley effects are pithy inversions. The European Orientalist discourse is invoked and vivified, but it also becomes the site for fresh enactments. The Orientalizing or colonial past recedes into the background, its contours bleached and blurred, as highly chromatic young Indian men of the street appear in the foreground.

I would like to unravel some of the separate strains of inversion in Wiley’s Indian paintings, such as “Annoyed Radha”. Chronologically, this painting is close in time to Wiley’s chosen period of European engagement with the Arab-African world. In the Hindu painting tradition from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, the cult of the divine lovers Radha and Krishna flourished. Royal devotees in courts dotted around India commissioned entire folios of paintings of this divine dalliance. Keshavdas’ Rasikapriya (1591) defines Radha as an idealized lover, and describes the entire spectrum of the moods of a woman in love. Wiley’s “Annoyed Radha with Her Friends” (Kangra Painting, 1810-25) draws on the intense theatre of the relationship-Krishna’s infidelity, his broken promises, and Radha’s passionate if temporary rejection of him. Wiley’s version of “Annoyed Radha” also references Gustave Guillaumet’s “Ain Kerma (Spring of Fig Trees) Smalah of Tiaret in Algeria” from 1867-a year that saw the heights of the French colonization of Algeria and the domination of Christian cultural values over Muslims. In Wiley’s case, the latter painting serves as a backdrop, while in the foreground two young men appear in a performative tableau. As in the Radha-Krishna iconography, the standing figure holds his hand up in the divine gesture (mudra) that urges patience. But in sharp departure from the inherent narrative, both the figures in the work fix their gaze onto the viewer. By looking back at them, we become complicit in this layering of receding Franco-Algerian and Indian cultures as the dominated races.

In the Indian tradition, cross-dressing among the lovers Radha and the blue-bodied god Krishna was part of artistic convention. Some of Wiley’s other works further define the male figures in their performance of the psychosexual space. “Female Fellah”, for instance, is a take on “Femme Fellah” (1866) by Charles Landelle (1812-1909), which was used as a tropist subject in Orientalist painting. In Wiley’s version, the woman peasant of the original painting mutates into a young man, represented here against the symbol of the earthenware urn originally used by Landelle. The sexual references and imagery are even more strongly evoked in Wiley’s “The White Slave”. This work can be read in reference to the eponymous 1881 painting by Jean du Nouy, in which a nude white slave girl sits in profile before the remains of a feast. By dramatically substituting her with a young male presence, Wiley problematizes Nuoy’s equating of the nude or semi-clad female body with the market, the feast, or other sites of pleasure and consumption.

Wiley’s panoply of young men appear in the chromatic colours of the south. Their dark skins, which may be read as emblematic of class, play against their gestures, which mimic those of temple icons, ungainly in working-class hands. The frames, decorative and defining, return our gaze to the busy, occasionally boisterous locale-one that links ancient pasts in a large swathe from the deserts of North Africa to South Asia.

Even as I write, Wiley’s paintings have an apocryphal quality. His painting of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Great Mosque of Cairo bears the palimpsest of two dark working-class Indian youth gesturing in acts of benediction. What appears to be a contemporary revision of Western expansion in the light of recent political developments gains a prophetic quality.

Henri Leopold Levy’s original work, “Napoleon Buonaparte in the Grand Mosque at Cairo”(1880), has a contemporary resonance with today’s mass protests and subsequent acts of violence. It precisely is at this juncture that Wiley pushes for what he describes as “the third space”. In terms of pictorial representation this may be excavated in the painting through the signs of economic power: the presence of Napoleon’s marauding armies, the authority of the Islamic Caliphate represented by the Grand Mosque, and the sun-darkened youth from the streets of India play out a triangulation of historical presences.

Conceptually, the third space also represents a reinvestigation of historical perspectives and location. The artist’s own presence outside the frame-as a black man of Nigerian descent, born, and living and working in America-widens the spiral into other constructions. The miasma of power dominations, trade routes and slavery, as well as both the Occident and Orient, are implicated in Wiley’s paintings. But these aspects also open up the space for what Wiley describes as “a hall of mirrors that neither creates a set of conclusions concerning nationality, ethnicity, class, identity or for that matter, art history.”[7] In a work such as “Egyptian Landscape”, shared histories are compacted. The Grand Mosque of Egypt and the young man in the studio-like setting create another palimpsest, a history shared between ancient pasts and current resistance.

Kehinde Wiley in India is a compact and layered art project. It draws into its ambit the academic traditions of portraiture and history painting, street energies and the substitution of male for female characters in historical citations. The manner in which Wiley fractures, teases and plays with the male gaze is one of the most persuasive aspects of the show. Representing a subject race with a long colonial history, his male figures appear in place of the white female slaves but with the potential for both domination and heroic resistance. This position is enriched by the Hindu concept of darshan or the gaze. ‘Darshan’ is most commonly used to describe the gaze as it is conferred on the iconic divine, which in turn gazes back, conferring protection and love. The power asymmetry presumed in such a transactional gaze is in factbalanced by the sheer iconic presence of Wiley’s young players. In the process Wiley also challenges aesthetic and class expectations and the viewer is compelled to look anew.

From the late nineteenth century, India developed a popular art tradition that stands in energetic and highly chromatic opposition to its classical art history. This was first through its calendar art tradition and later, Bollywood. Popular art was first seen in the nineteenth century through cheap, bright posters of gods and goddesses that flooded the market. Bollywood became the site of a universal Indian language, vigorous rhythms and unlikely heroisms. Kehinde Wiley hones in on these traditions through very distinctive touches: the vivid colours that recall South Indian poster art, the still stylized effect reminiscent of Indian photo studies with its background ‘sceneries’; and most of all, a sense of the portrait as iconic. In this melee of signs, we may read another India, one young, tentative and as yet uninscribed in history.


[1] Brownation is a term which suggests a specific racial and ethnic postcolonial type, neither white nor black, determining its own identity.

[2] Subaltern studies, a phenomenon of South American and South Asian social studies, refers to the inferior subject with particular reference to discrimination against non-elites due to race, colour, gender, ethnicity and economic grouping. Front-ranking scholars in this field are Edward Said, Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Their particular purview has been history and the social sciences within the postcolonial framework.

[3] Joe Houston, “Kehinde Wiley,” in Kehinde Wiley: Columbus (Ohio: Columbus Museum of Art, 2007), 7.

[4] Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, eds., Performativity and Performance (New York: Routledge, 1995), 2.

[5] As mentioned by Kehinde Wiley to the author.

[6] Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1995), 140.

[7] As mentioned by Kehinde Wiley to the author.

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