This article will feature in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019)

Writing in her seminal Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, bell hooks observed that “white folks often have greater access to the work of black artists and to the critical apparatus that allows for understanding and appreciation of the work”. hooks points out a white hegemony that exists throughout the art world and, in particular, art histories. The strong Afrocentric works  of Kehinde Wiley and Akuniyli Crosby often counter this, however. 

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading The Army Over The Alps (2005), oil and enamel on canvas

Not only does Wiley provide a new narrative and voice for black folk, but he places this narrative within the context of the established realm of history portraiture. His theme of black royalty and aristocracy, evident in his Obama portrait, is nuanced in its Afrocentric style and colour. His paintings allow an insight into a different society and provide a new understanding of the subjectivity of the black male body.  Wiley’s new series focuses on transgender women of Tahiti, a nod to Gauguin’s own series.  

There is something almost amusing about Wiley’s his work that arguably appropriates the styles of the great master, although beneath lies the greater issue of representations of black identity and black masculinity. By placing the figures of ordinary black men in these positions Wiley elevates them to a status that is not often not afforded to them in society.

“Mother and Child,” acrylic, transfers, colored pencil, collage, and commemorative fabric on paper, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2016)

Akunyili Crosby normalises the domesticity of black home life in her artworks. She gives a sense of the colourfulness of many black diaspora homes, all of which are different depending on the individual. Her subjects, more often than not, share a familial bond within the home that many black people could identify with. Both artists create narratives that are embedded with cross-generational influence. Commenting on a show of hers, Crosby said: “I do all of these mixes so that when you are in front of it you, the viewer, are being placed in this transcultural, trans-everything space; things that point to the convoluted but interesting and beautiful histories that come out of post-colonial countries”. Her work stitches together what the notion of home is to different people, but it also gives a sense that it is a shared experience.”

Both artists subvert the tradition of objectifying the black body for the sake of art. Instead they convey to us the narrative of everyday black people, and these are the identities that are at the core of their works.