3 February 2021
Discover more about 'Kanye, 2015' by Kehinde Wiley - a bronze bust depicting the American hip-hop artist which was recently displayed in our 'Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools' exhibition.
Essay by Ashleigh Barice, Curator, Academic, Founder & Director of curatorial platform b.Dewitt.
Kehinde Wiley is renowned for his renderings of classical and historical portraiture. Directly referencing a particular history of Western aesthetics, his practice often acts as commentary on the subject and its representation of power.
Wiley’s elaborately constructed environment(s) cite or ‘sample’ specific moments in the Western canon as a method of criticising it from within itself. Bust portraiture perpetuates an ideology associated with the unconquerable stance of its subject. Few would challenge its credibility due to a historical high regard for the genre.
The bust then comes to represent a certain collective consciousness of what one should aspire towards. Not only does this assist in the construction of the ‘idea’ of the subject, but it also reinforces the construction of a social consensus by becoming representative of the time of production. Wiley’s visual interpretation of the subject operates within the constraints of traditional Western aesthetics through what may be seen as a type of ‘sampling’ used to deconstruct subjectivity itself.
Foundational to hip-hop is a similar act of mimicry or a recycling of portions of other sound recordings. Hip-hop artists have been known to incorporate pre-existing beats, lyrics and vocals into new work through sampling. Arguably, one of the most masterful samplers and producers of our time is Kanye West. His innovative approach to combining funk, soul and house classics with the standard elements of hip-hop beats has not only become revolutionary within the genre but has also become synonymous with the genre itself. Similar to Wiley, West reimagines Western cultural production through repurposing historically relevant elements of the culture.
Kanye West as (a) subject or Kanye West as the subject of Kehinde Wiley’s 2015 bronze figurative life size to scale bust of the same name, Kanye, is a welcome reminder that the artist functions as the liaison between the subject and its access to the spectator or listener. Wiley’s repurposing of the Kanye subject challenges the integrity as well as the credibility of the work itself through simultaneously consolidating elements of the old and new, through his own act of sampling and remixing.
His visual interpretation of his subject paired with a ‘vocabulary of dignity/power’ operates within the constraints of traditional Western aesthetics by deliberately calling attention to these limitations. The bust Kanye manipulates reality through a ‘mash-up’ of fantasy and popular culture, whilst also engaging elements of Romanticism (the arts and literature movement that began in Europe in the late 1700s and which emphasized inspiration, subjectivity and the importance of the individual.
The sheen and weight of the polished bronze coupled with West’s upward gaze marry dignity to power; a relationship of genre to material. The use of this material paired with the genre of bust portraiture that incorporates the additional rendering of a contemporary Black male subject who himself represents a particular power creates a tension between the subject and viewer.
Kehinde Wiley’s Kanye embodies two masters in conversation with each other within one work of art. There’s a particular irony between this pair. Both have recognised borrowing or sampling as key to the success of their artistic productions. Often recontextualising the past to generate new interpretations in both the current and future, West and Wiley continually produce cultural artifacts that challenge our ways of seeing and listening.
The 'Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools' exhibition was curated by The Box in partnership with The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth and Royal Museums Greenwich. It was displayed in The Levinsky Gallery at the University of Plymouth from 29 September to 20 December 2020.
Images courtesy of The Arts Institute.