Kehinde Wiley’s ‘An Archeology of Silence’ is a homegoing of epic magnitude
The presidential portraitist offers a gift to those mourning the ubiquity and pain of so much Black death
SAN FRANCISCO — The mark of a skilled undertaker is often measured by how closely they are able to create an artifice of sleep so that the living may say goodbye to their deceased loved ones. As a child, I resented this ritual of embalming someone and laying them out for display. It felt fake and the fakeness felt insulting to the dead. But for Christians who believe in a heavenly afterlife, the suggestion of sleep gestures at a reunion one sweet day.
At the de Young Museum here, there are two new recessed crypts holding life-size bronzes — one of a young Black man and another of a young Black woman, part of a new collection from artist Kehinde Wiley, who is perhaps best known as the official portraitist of former president Barack Obama. Though the wood framing around the crypts is suggestive of the presentation one might expect at a funeral home, their faces are turned sideways toward the viewer, and they are so free and undisturbed in their slumber that one comes away thinking, Shhh, better to let them lay.
In his exhibition, titled An Archeology of Silence, Wiley has enlivened and dimensioned this spirituality in a way that even the most talented mortician cannot. The two works in the crypts, The Dead Toreador (Sophie Ndiaye) and The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (Babacar Mané), are posed in a manner less formal than the upturned face and hands-folded-on chest orientation of a corpse at a homegoing celebration. Their faces don’t bear the indicators of lifelessness. And that is a comfort.
Wiley, 46, grew up in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles and obtained his bachelor’s degree from San Francisco Art Institute, so bringing An Archeology of Silence from the Venice Biennale, where it debuted last year, to San Francisco marks a homecoming of sorts. It consists of 25 works, all made during the pandemic between 2020-2022, either in Dakar, Senegal, or Lagos, Nigeria. (Wiley has studios in both cities.) The work takes its name from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s 1972 treatise, The Archaeology of Knowledge.
An Archeology of Silence expands on ideas Wiley first began surfacing in 2008 with DOWN, a collection of seven large-scale works inspired by The Dead Christ in the Tomb by 16th-century portraitist Hans Holbein the Younger. They all featured Black men who were either prone or supine.
“This exhibition is not only about some of the ills and some of the terrible circumstances in America, but it’s about a global reality,” Wiley said in an interview. “The state of affairs for Black and brown people globally is being addressed in this body of work. But … there is a relief that happens when you’re working in a country in which you don’t have to really think about your race so much all the time. I really enjoyed working from my studio in Dakar or studio in Lagos, Nigeria, because it allowed me an invisibility. There’s a sense of freedom, a sense of potential play, really, that exists outside of recognizing myself first as someone who embodies a specific race.”
Wiley gained worldwide renown for his enormous, celebratory portraits of Black people — usually strangers he met on the street who agreed to sit for him. These paintings often revealed a sense of humor that calls back to the irreverence of designer Patrick Kelly, who, in the 1980s, painted himself as the Mona Lisa. Take, for example, Wiley’s Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson) from 2009. Wiley delights in playing the troll, a quality, he noted with a mischievous smirk during a press tour of the exhibition, that he admires in singer Little Richard.
Wiley’s art cannot be reduced solely to situating contemporary Black people within the context of the European masters and asking if it makes us fully visible to white people. If that were all he was doing, the work would quickly grow reductive and repetitive. Instead, it doubles and triples over itself, enveloping its viewers like his trademark floral filigree envelops his subjects. An Archeology of Silence is speaking to the dead, to the living, and to those living who are in conversation with the dead.
“I was looking at trying to create a show that spoke to the vulnerability of Black bodies,” Wiley said. “During the COVID downturn … it became immediately evident to me that there was something there that needed to be unearthed: an archeology of silence, an archeology of those presences that are no longer with us, and a digging up of the language that is about a much more somber state of celebration, the kind of celebration where you see these surrounding people who are fallen heroes, fallen gods, oftentimes even an eroticized state of decay.”
There are multiple works here in which the sculpted or painted figures do not seem to be dead so much as in the midst of a deep, restorative sleep or the sort of postcoital coma one observes in a lover who is blissfully and idiomatically dead to the world.
“What you see in the show is a violent resistance to the downfall narrative,” Wiley said. “There’s a growth within the decay, and so that explains a lot of these landscapes that are sparkling with life. That explains a lot of the decorative filigree that is … crawling over the bodies. But in the end, this is … an indictment of state power over Black bodies. It’s an indictment of a resistance to seeing the full humanity of the people we see in so much of this work. It’s a desire to see each and every one of the subjects in this work sculpted and painted in full light.”
In the audio tour that accompanies An Archeology of Silence, visitors can hear the voice of Rev. Wanda Johnson, whose son, Oscar Grant III, was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on the platform of the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California, on Jan. 1, 2009. His slaying was the inspiration for the 2013 film written and directed by Ryan Coogler, who is also from Oakland.
Her commentary is especially evocative about a bronze titled Dying Gaul, after a Roman Sculpture of the 1st Century. The sculpture portrays a young man in a hoodie, seated on the ground, head bent, eyes closed, as if he is trying to catch his breath. A single vine, emerging from the ground, encircles his left knee and calf, the earth just beginning to reclaim one of its own.
“I think about Oscar’s friends the night when he was on the platform, and then seeing his friends get abused by the police officer, I seen his strength,” Johnson says in the audio. “And how he seen the injustice. And he stood up, not knowing that that would be his last time to stand up. But yet willing to die for his friends, because of standing up for what was right.”
Repeated trauma, especially the public trauma of lynching, begets a sort of dread that cannot be tempered by beauty alone. It’s why some Jews avoid art about the Holocaust or some Black people resist watching “slave movies.” Wiley frequently refers to himself as someone who points — at a thing, a person, a dynamic — someone who forces us to look.
And then the first Black president of the United States asked him to paint his official portrait, and something changed.
“It used to be that my work was pointing at power and it was talking about ‘power’ until I painted Barack Obama and then all of a sudden I was dealing with the real thing,” Wiley said at a press event for the exhibit. “I remember interviewing — you just don’t get that job, you have to interview — and he asked me, ‘Kehinde, most of your paintings are people who are minding their own business, people who aren’t celebrated and who end up eventually on museum walls. Well, I’m the real thing, so what are you going to do about that?’ I don’t remember what I said, but I must have said something right. I got the job.
“And since then I’ve been able to, in a very real sense, mobilize the renown of that painting and its story towards telling bigger stories, towards having a slightly larger budget so that I can fly the world and ask bigger questions and make bigger bronzes and make larger provocations. But I think at its best, what the work is doing now is to be able to exercise moments of quiet and intimate conjecture as well.”
With An Archeology of Silence, Wiley is no longer pointing, but beckoning, drawing us into the private vulnerabilities of his subjects, pausing to give Black people, and those who love Black people, something they desperately need: an instance of tranquility, a beat before martyrdom to know these slain people lived and were loved in ways that were full, rich, and complete.
They, and we, have been robbed of so much, at a scale and frequency that is barely conceivable. I thought of Tyre Nichols and George Floyd, both victims of police killings, calling out for their mothers in their last moment of consciousness. Of civil rights activist Medgar Evers lying in a pool of blood in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home. Of a pregnant Mary Turner, attempting to get justice for her lynched husband, only to be captured, hanged and cut open, her fetus crushed beneath the boots of her tormentors. Of Black people, boiled alive, dismembered, defiled, charred, sunken, disappeared, dragged, beaten, tortured, used and abandoned like so much refuse and roadkill. Left hanging from a swing set, or curled into a wrestling mat. Subjected to the agony of botched executions. How the final sensations experienced by so many Black people right before their last breaths have been unfathomable pain, terror, anguish and loneliness, wondering why they have been targeted and forsaken.
I thought of the ache in jazz singer Nina Simone’s voice as she performed “Mississippi Goddam” in 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “They’re picking us off, one by one,” she moaned.
Wiley offers a restoration of what has been stolen, obscured, obliterated. He offers peace. Rest. A “good death.” Not so much an absence of pain, but a transcendence of it. These are moments, preserved on canvas or in bronze, that slow time long enough to allow the viewer to appreciate that which white supremacy keeps snatching from us.
Part of the power of the bronzes lies in their scale. Some, such as the exhibition’s title sculpture, are massive. On its plinth, the sculpture stands nearly 20 feet tall and weighs several tons. A shirtless young man with cornrows is slumped over the saddle of a horse, as though the beast is ferrying its wounded rider home from battle. The young man’s feet, clad in Nikes, dangle precariously. The reins, which he once held when upright and conscious, now fall to the ground between the steed’s feet. Placed in isolation, in a room with burgundy walls, the magnitude of the statue inspires awe. I let out an involuntary whistle when I first saw it.
But then there are smaller bronzes, such as Dying Gaul, which measures four feet across, and Youth Mourning, which is just under 32 inches in length. In Youth Mourning, a boy with cornrows lies curled on the ground, his hands covering his face, as if heeding the Islamic call to prayer. The light hits his back, shoulders, and neck as though he is being touched by God. In another piece about four feet across, Christian Martyr Tarcisius (El Hadji Malick Gueye), a young man lies on the ground in a half-fetal position, supporting himself by his elbows, eyes closed, hands clutched to his chest.
These sculptures, of adolescents and adults rendered at the size of children, evoke feelings of tenderness. I wanted to throw my arms around these people. “Oh, honey,” I kept murmuring, as if they were alive, as if they could hear me. The size of the smaller bronzes however, also implicates the observer because, next to them, an adult human might as well be Zeus. What kind of monster brutalizes such a being, or finds satisfaction and community in meting out such brutality?
I was reminded of the child-sized “sugar babies” that were part of Kara Walker’s 2014 exhibition at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York. You may recall the enormous white sugar sculpture of a woman rising from the floor of the refinery, colloquially known as the “Mammy Sphinx.” But there were other sculptures with her, tiny ones, the color of molasses. Little boys — toddlers, really — holding baskets and rendered in cast resin, that decomposed in the humidity of the plant. “Mammy” was glorious, resolute, her size blessing her with a spiritual inviolability. But the children, so small, so fragile, so defenseless against meteorological elements that found their way through the cracks and windows of the factory — linger most vividly in my memory, much like the diminutives Wiley has fashioned.
Abram Jackson, the de Young Museum’s director of interpretation, encouraged viewers to take in An Archeology of Silence within the broader context of systemic violence, rather than state violence. The violence Black people endure extends beyond that which is doled out by the police and the criminal justice system more broadly. There is the violence of poverty, of lack, of neglect, of contempt, of ghettoization, of the denial that this violence persists because powerful people allow it to continue. The violence of medical racism, of displacement and despair, of Jim and Jane Crow. The violence of the death-by-a-thousand-cuts weathering that finds us, regardless of our class or congressional district. The violence of witnessing so much premature death, of those little known outside their families or the famous, such as actors Nelsan Ellis, who died at 39, Chadwick Boseman, at 43, Michael K. Williams, 54, and, most recently, Lance Reddick, 60.
This is a violence with which I am acutely familiar and it shaped how I experienced An Archeology of Silence.
When Boseman died in August 2020 from colon cancer, I was gutted. Boseman had given us so much in such a short life. The story of his illness, which he’d kept secret, was especially painful. I recalled his appearance at an event in New York in 2018 and thinking how exhausted he seemed. He thought he would recover, and that was how he proceeded in roles in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Da 5 Bloods (both released in 2020). In April, 2021, a few weeks before my 37th birthday, I found a lump in my left breast. Even before a radiologist confirmed the diagnosis, I knew it was cancer. Genetics and family history suggested that either me or my sister would have to confront the beast.
Unlike Boseman, I knew I wouldn’t be able to conceal my illness. I had to have major surgery, followed by eight rounds of chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiation, followed by madness-inducing hormone therapy.
I became intimately familiar with the weariness I’d detected in Boseman. My God, how did he do it? I wondered. I chose to handle cancer differently, documenting my oncological miseries, and I know that seeing Boseman that evening in 2018 was part of the reason. Identifying with the bravery and stylish beauty of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s work — and knowing she’d died at age 34 from pancreatic cancer, unable to complete her last play — was another part of the reason I was spooked. I hadn’t done nearly enough yet, as a person, as a writer, as a citizen.
Stricken with the disease that had stolen three of my heroes — Boseman, Hansberry and my Aunt Cornelia McDonald — I was forced to reevaluate. The worst was when Williams died in September 2021 and I realized I did not have the mental or physical capacity at the time to do his life and art justice with my writing. It was awful enough that this man who gave so much of himself — because that was the only way Williams could act: completely boldly, truthfully present — had died so early. Then there was the torture of feeling useless, of not being able to honor him with the one thing of value I believed I could offer.
Death, especially death caused by the coronavirus pandemic and experienced at disproportionate rates by poor people, Black people and Latinos, was all around us. All of this, I carried with me into the de Young.
This trip to San Francisco was the first I’d taken since 2021 in which I no longer felt encumbered by illness or disability related to cancer or its treatment. On the flight home, though, the news broke that Riddick — an artist who left his mark of understated regality on works from The Wire to John Wick — had died. It was then that I began to comprehend the enormity of the gift Wiley has bestowed on us in this exhibition.
He has created, on canvas and in bronze, a tangible, restful peace for so many who have been denied it. And for those who remain alive, Wiley has fashioned a vessel for grief, an experience that inhales the truths of Black existence and the extinguishing of Black life, lightens the burden of memory, and exhales a blessing.
An Archeology of Silence will remain at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through Oct. 15.