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

A Conclusion: The End of the Beginning 

It seems rather unusual to end a discussion with more questions, but that has been the nature of the argument itself. In this retrospective exploration into the representations of people of colour in the art historical canon, we have found many answers, which inevitably ask more questions. We have gathered that the consensus on the decolonization of art history is that it has not happened yet, but there have been no great plans to generate these ideas on a mass scale.[67]  From reviewing answers from many great thinkers of the western art world, it is clear that a self-awareness of the shortcomings in this discipline is present. What Price, Grant, Vergès, Wiley, Shonibare and others are doing is asking these difficult questions and indeed challenging art history as a whole.

“What does a decolonized art history look like?”[68]  It is a study that highlights every aspect of humanity. Visual culture is the representation of mankind from its greatest accomplishments to its deepest tragedies. If anything, what exhibitions like those presented by Françoise Vergès as well as Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer proves, is that there are certain parts of history that society celebrates and others that are selectively forgotten. In the study of portraiture, we are taught that no image is benign and that we must endeavour to look further into the context of a piece’s creation to truly “understand” it. This essay has proven to us that we must place equal emphasis on the politics of perception. Many people of colour, who go to these great historical establishments fail to see anybody who looks like them and even when they do, they are either, faceless, nameless or a statistical anomaly. Blacks from the eighteenth century are rarely seen without a white counterpart to remind them and also us, as the audience, of their blatant blackness.[69]

Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Martin and Thomas Gainsborough are of the few painters of the eighteenth century to actually present people of colour as human beings. But their presence only mattered at this time because of the people who formulated and “domesticated” their bodies on a canvas.[70]  Representations of blackness have somehow become synonymous with servitude within the art historical canon and that is now what is considered an underlying normality. Kehinde Wiley, from The World Stage (2006-2014) to In Search of the Miraculous (2017) has given us a confronting image of people of colour. These images are not abrasive, or harsh in ethos, but they are incredibly intimate and revealing. We see the soul in those Wiley creates; their humanity. That is what a decolonized art history looks like; one that celebrates inclusivity, equity and diversity. Wiley does not just place “black subjects front and centre.”[71]  With them, he places black thought, black culture, black emotion and black ambition, front and centre. In 2017 The Ship of Fools became the first of his works to be added to a public collection in the United Kingdom. Its placement reminds us of the connections between slavery and the sea in a gallery space and borough prided on London’s lengthy maritime history.

Finally, this essay implores us to think deeper about topics surrounding the colonization of the art historical canon. Self-awareness means an understanding beyond one’s own perspective. In this admittedly Eurocentric discipline, formally sympathetic to the polishing and scrubbing of colour for the goal of this image of white, polite, immaculacy; a period of reflection is due. This study does not aim to disparage the writings of the established canon, but it is a call to do what we as art historians have always been taught to do, not take interpretations of any nature at face value. The black lives matter movement has had such an impact on the ways we view society, and that should change how we study art history. For, the difference between civility and archaism is the will to grow. As long as our society remains diverse and underrepresentation exists, this topic will always matter; currently and always, Black Lives Matter.


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

[68] ibid.

[69]Bindman, The Image of the Black, 125-170.

[70] Harrison, The African Presence, 8.

[71]Tsai, Kehinde Wiley, 16. 

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