Kehinde Wiley represents Cuba and the carnivalesque in a series of monumental portraits

Artist Kehinde Wiley draws on the past to inform his contemporary portraiture. The subjects of his paintings are front and center among the green images.

Colorful flowers and repeating patterns surround them like the decadent wallpaper you’d expect in a palatial setting. They are reminiscent of paintings you would find in a museum created by the old masters. Here, however, Wiley focuses the work on black and brown figures.

They assume the royal positions that have historically been reserved for the white European nobility.

Wiley’s latest series of paintings titled HAVANA continues this artistic exploration as a focus on global black culture. The collection is inspired by two trips that the artist made to Cuba and analyzes the “carnivalesque phenomenon in Western culture.”

His visual references were inspired by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and Calder, as well as Western European representations of the circus, street performance, dance, and carnival.

The circus is a place, but it is also a metaphor. Wiley focuses on the carnivalesque through circus performers who “embrace a dynamic and vibrant way of living and being in the world.”

The circus is where those who exist on the fringes of society, be it cultural, religious or social, can find a place. When viewed from an African or African Diaspora point of view, the lively and celebratory events offer moments of reprieve, freedom and joy in which formerly enslaved people could participate, a rarity for those who were colonized and forced to emigrate. . Mardi Gras in New Orleans is one example.

“Black people are survivors, we are shapeshifters,” Wiley says, “The luscious, delicious ways we survive have put the blues and many other cultural traditions at the forefront of creative American culture, whether it be jazz or hip hop, soul food or African-American fashion sensibilities.

During his first visit to Cuba in 2015, Wiley went to the Escuela Nacional de Circo Cuba. (Before 1959, Cuba had a long tradition of circus arts with many family companies.)

On his second visit in 2022, the artist met with Deep Roots artists. The group is considered to be one of the most authentic ensembles in the Yoruba religious tradition.

“The artists are each different, there are so many different viewpoints, so many different life experiences, but one thing that unites them all is the very feeling that the United States dominates Cuba’s economic fortunes,” Wiley explains.

“The relationship between the United States and Cuba has been fraught with fascination, suspicion, intrigue, and cultural weight.”

The monumental paintings show the individuality of each artist, either through their clothing or the things they carry like juggling sticks or instruments.

Each person looks directly into the eyes of the viewer, looking confident with their head slightly upturned.

Much of the work follows the lines of circus performers as those who can suspend reality, those who can breathe to be a third space, a third area, one in which all the normal aspects of life are cast aside. in favor of a drunken, changed, hyperactive and vibrant way of living, being and seeing the world. » Wiley explains.

“It is through these intersections and these interventions that black and brown people have historically been able to communicate love and joy in a radical act of defiance.”

HAVANA is now on view at Sean Kelly in New York through June 17, 2023. In addition to the paintings, there is a three-channel film featuring interviews and performances by members of the Deep Roots.