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Art history is filled with examples of the powerful and the wealthy communicating their status through portraiture. Not just sovereigns, but military leaders, aristocrats, and champions of industry. This is particularly true of Western art, at a time when European nations conquered land, peoples and commerce.
But what of the conquered and colonized? Many visual languages of power were muted by empire, and when they returned – if they returned at all – post-independence, some of the Western vocabulary remained. Africa has reclaimed its sovereignty, nation by nation. (Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, was the last country ruled by a European power to gain its independence, in 1980.) Nonetheless, are its leaders seen in the same light as their Western peers? Perhaps not, supposes Kehinde Wiley in his latest collection, “A Maze of Power,” which, in the artist’s own indelible style, casts plenty of light of its own.
Born in Los Angeles and now living between Senegal, Nigeria and New York, Wiley is most famous for his official portrait of former US President Barack Obama from 2018. We’re now learning that before and after that commission, he had been on a secret, decade-long odyssey across the African continent, painting its current and former heads of state.
The series of 11 paintings, produced in collaboration with Galerie Templon, is on display at the Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in Paris, France, which kept the details of the exhibition confidential, including the leaders featured, until the very last moment.
The idea came to Wiley when Obama was elected president in 2008, said Sarah Ligner, head of the historical and contemporary globalization collection at the museum. “(He) started thinking of the possibility of portraits of Black presidents, and began to explore notions of power and what that looked like,” she explained.
The portraits, of a style invoking 17th to 19th century European paintings, open up a dialogue about power in the 21st century using an aesthetic toolbox from the past. In a video accompanying the exhibition, Wiley ponders, “Is it possible to use the language of empire as it relates to painting in an African context and arrive on the other side with something completely new?” The answer is both yes and no.
This is not unfamiliar territory for the artist: Wiley has interpreted portraits by Old Masters before, using members of the public, his fellow artists and hip hop pioneers as models. This series narrows the gap further, with subjects commanding a similar power to some of Wiley’s artistic reference points.
Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the former president of Madagascar, sits astride a horse in one painting. In another, the president of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde, stands contemplatively, while over her shoulder we see the gleaming capital of her nation, Addis Ababa. The portrait of former president Alpha Condé of Guinea marries a sharp, ink blue checked suit with a background comprising Classical statues and architecture.
Wiley traveled to Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Ethiopia, Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo for the project, where he photographed the leaders before returning to paint them in his studio.
Each subject was asked to wear whatever they felt was appropriate, and shown a binder of portraits from centuries past – “a vocabulary of power that each one of the presidents could choose to work with or choose to ignore,” said Wiley in the exhibition video.
Some leaders brought props, and Rajaonarimampianina – a noted lover of horses – had a steed, said Ligner. But other elements, particularly the backgrounds, in the portraits came from the artist himself. “What I wanted was this kind of negotiation back and forth between the real and the imagined, between the choices that the heads of state make and the choices that I make,” said Wiley.
As for the title of the exhibition, “The maze of power is the maze that’s being run by me, the artist, but also by the sitter,” said Wiley in the video. “The sitter deciding how they want to be seen. Me responding to their set of decisions.”
A look at presidents, not politics
During the photo sessions, there was one subject not up for discussion for Wiley. “He chose not to speak with them about political issues,” said Ligner.
Not all of his sitters have sterling reputations and one, Condé, was later deposed in a coup in 2021. Some might wrinkle their nose at seeing certain heads or former heads of state depicted in such triumphant fashion.
“These portraits can be interpreted from multiple points of view,” said Ligner. “The importance of this series is to stimulate or to challenge preconceptions and stereotypes.”
Besides, “it’s not the first time an artist has chosen to present models without any political or moral criteria,” she added, pointing to Andy Warhol’s large collection of Chairman Mao Zedong portraits from the 1970s – another example of portraits not advocating for their subject but curious about the semiotics of the artform.
“This is not a celebration of individual leaders. This is a look at the presidency itself,” said Wiley. “This is an invitation for the viewer to expand the possibilities of what it means to look at art in Africa, about Africa.”
As a condition of being painted, none of the models were able to see their completed portraits before the opening of the exhibition, said Ligner. None have visited the museum yet, she added, although officials from various states have.
Wiley’s subjects and the public will have until January 14 to enter the Maze of Power and see for themselves what power – at least according to his brush – looks like.
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