Poetic Radiance: ‘An Archeology of Silence’ by Kehinde Wiley at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Kehinde Wiley and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Director Gary Tinterow first met in New York when Tinterow, then a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, proposed the acquisition of Wiley’s The Veiled Christ, a large 2008 watercolor.

“I expected to have to convince the board,” Tinterow said during a conversation with Wiley at the MFAH recently, “but it sailed right through the approval process.” According to Wiley, that painting gave rise to the exhibition, An Archeology of Silence, currently on view at the museum through May 27, 2024. This exhibition was first presented at the Venice Biennale in 2022 before traveling to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and then to San Francisco.

The 26 monumental sculptures and paintings in the show are an expansion of Wiley’s Down series from 2008, which was inspired by the violent deaths of Black people worldwide. Created during the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the pieces are a result of Wiley’s ongoing investigation into the iconography of death in Western art.

“That is the archeology I am unearthing,” Wiley said in a statement about the show. “The specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world.”

One day before the show opened in Houston, Wiley arrived from Africa, where he founded Black Rock Senegal in Dakar, which includes one of his studios and an artist-in-residence program. “We had a busy day rehanging the show,” Tinterow said. “For Wiley, it’s all about the sightlines of the pieces on display.”

The galleries have been transformed into a series of chapel-like spaces, with large paintings and bronze sculptures displayed against burgundy, dark blue, deep purple, and chestnut walls.

“This is not your usual museum space,” said Claudia Schmuckli, curator of the show at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, where it made its U.S. debut. “Perfectly framed and seemingly lit from within like stained glass windows, the paintings have an otherworldly drama and pathos.”

According to Tinterow, the lighting for the show was a challenge. They were able to achieve a spiritual effect with “projector lights,” which infuse the paintings with radiance but don’t spill onto the walls. Wiley was also involved in the lighting of his work, saying,  “What I want is to create mystery.”

All the pieces in the show reference historical paintings and sculptures of heroes, martyrs, or saints, but Wiley has replaced the original figures with Black women and men who are presented horizontally prone, seemingly having been struck down, wounded, or sleeping. By presenting them in this way, Wiley emphasizes the preciousness of the body and a connection with the sacred. The sitters are honored by having their names included in the titles, which also include the titles of the original artwork on which they are based.

“I want people to pay attention,” Wiley said during his conversation with Tinterow. “People who look like me have been here throughout history, too. We all just want to be seen.”

One of the epic sculptures in the show is the title piece, An Archeology of Silence, a 13-foot bronze horse bearing a slain rider based on a Confederate monument portraying General J.E.B. Stuart. It was originally sited in Richmond, Virginia, but has been removed and replaced by Wiley’s Rumors of War. The face of the Black man slumped across the saddle is a digital composite of the faces of hundreds of Black men who died violently over a ten-year period.

No explanations are posted with the works of art because, according to MFAH Curator Anita Bateman, “Wiley prefers each of us to have our own response unmediated by words. He has created a sacred space where viewers can meditate on their reaction to the work.”

The ornamental backgrounds are an important part of the paintings, and sculptural versions of the vines even appear in some of the bronzes. “The backgrounds are filled with meaning,” Wiley said. “The decorative arts have long been associated with the feminine, but mine want to take control. If you look at my portrait of Obama, the flowers are starting to crawl up his leg.” The flowers in Wiley’s famous presidential portrait reference the various locales of Obama’s upbringing. The painting was displayed at the MFAH in 2022 alongside the portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Schmuckli points out that the hyper-masculine figures are presented with feminine backgrounds. “Wiley achieves a hyper-visibility that refuses to be ignored,” she said. “There is minute attention to detail, down to the branded clothing of the hip-hop culture.” She notes that there is a subversive quality to Wiley’s work that challenges the viewer.

“I make jewels that glisten so brightly that by the time you realize there is some medicine in there, it’s too late,” Wiley said.

“These are poetic masterpieces executed with tenderness and compassion that invite everyone in,” Tinterow said. “Wiley’s elegies, at once sublimely beautiful and deeply disturbing, are profoundly moving, even unforgettable.”