Pt I: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley. 

A Short Introduction 

Black Lives Matter[1]. Three simple words, which hold at their core, centuries of the systematic covering and scrubbing of the presence and humanity of people of colour in the western world. The image of man has been highly observed throughout the history of art, but this remains in a polished picture of ivory and porcelain. Art is a supposed talisman of human expression, which articulates the intricacies of the society it aims to represent. But as we move through the famous galleries of Europe and America, we are often met with the faces of one majority. General education teaches the histories of our society from classical civilisation to the tragedies of twentieth-century warfare. However, in the midst of this, there are frequent gaps in the curriculum that fail to teach us from a young age of a time quite different from the “norms” of twenty-first-century life. In actuality, we are yet to be confronted with the hard truths of the similarities faced by minorities between now and previous centuries.

Colonization, empire, race and representation, do not immediately fill our consciousness when contemplating the work of artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds or George Stubbs, which occupy the walls of exhibition spaces like the National Gallery, Tate and so on (fig. 1 and 2). At the beginning of this year, Catherine Grant and Dorothy Price presented an interactive study which, in its essence, questions our lack of awareness on these subjects and asks what could be done to change the way we think about art history as a discipline [2]. The question which bears paramount importance is, “what does a decolonized art history look like?”[3]. To be colonized or to colonize is the act of “occupying a foreign land, with its being brought under cultivation, with the settlement of colonists.”[4]  By this definition, it is a practice that dates back to ancient Greece. This essay, however, concerns itself with a specific type of colonization, often referred to as “modern colonialism” stemming from European discoveries during the early modern period.[5]  “Colour-blind[ness]” in the arts and humanities must be made evident. With this new self-awareness, the ways of investigating our own history as a society can evolve.[6]

Pt I: Navigating Blackness - Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley. 

Figure 1. The National Gallery, Interior of room 34, The Sackler Room. The National Gallery, London. 

Pt I: Navigating Blackness - Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley. 
Figure 2. Tate, Interior of the 1780 west gallery. Tate, London.

Though visual culture serves a universal purpose to the individual, one often needs to be presented with art that makes them think. It is in the performances of artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Yinka Shonibare RA and Kara Walker amongst other influential black creators that we find this “food for thought.” Wiley’s In search of the Miraculous exhibition at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London presses further on the relationship between colonialism and the sea. Over time his work has presented a mission to firmly place images of blackness as a “stylized interrogation of the historical legacy of fine art.”[7]  This argument is of a personal nature. As a Nigerian woman of colour, raised in a society where visual culture highlights whiteness and somewhat inadvertently suppresses blackness through a lack of care, it is only natural for one to feel displaced. If art truly emulates society, how do we justify the relative lack of representation, which renders people of colour from early modernism nameless and faceless?

This essay does not seek to present various case studies and disparage the established art historical canon. Instead, it encourages more questions to be asked so that the discipline may reflect inwards. The visual and literary burying of western colonial atrocities must be magnified rather than hidden. In creating a retrospective study, we actively explore the field of eighteenth-century portraiture and explore the politics of representing slaves. Confrontation is the discomfort necessary in the understanding of change. Initially, some may believe that we live in a society uninhibited by issues faced by minorities centuries ago. But it is the act of systematic underrepresentation that leads to the re-dehumanisation of those minorities that remain silently hindered. As long as society remains diverse, the visual culture that surrounds us on a daily basis must endeavour to reflect this shift, for if it does not, we begin to ask ourselves, what has changed? 

[1] Wil Gafney, “A Reflection on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Its Impact on My Scholarship.” Journal of Biblical Literature 136, no. 1 (2017): 204-07; See also, Christopher J Lebron, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A brief history of an idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[2] Catherine Grant and Dorothy Price, “Decolonizing Art History,” Art History 43, no.1 (2020): 8-66.

[3] Grant and Price, “Decolonizing,”10.

[4] Marc Ferro, Colonization: A Global History (London: Routledge, 2005), 2.

[5] Shona N. Jackson, “Colonialism,” in Keywords for African American Studies, ed. Erica R. Edwards et al., (New York: NYU Press, 2018): 51.

[6] Felice Blake, “Why Black Lives Matter in the Humanities,” in Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines, ed. Crenshaw Kimberlé Williams et al (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 310.

[7]André M. Carrington, “The Cultural Politics of a Worldmaking Practice: Kehinde Wiley’s Cosmopolitanism,” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 8:2, 245.

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