Kehinde Wiley and the gallery of the powerful of Africa

Kehinde Wiley installs his gallery of the powerful of Africa at the Quai Branly museum

The Quai Branly museum houses eleven monumental portraits of African leaders transfigured by the famous African-American artist specializing in black models and ceremonial portraits. But isn’t the honor given to certain potentates, regularly contested and criticized both at home and internationally, too great?

The place of the black man in History and of art in our lives. These are the two pillars of the reflection and work of Kehinde Wiley, an African-American painter just in his fifties, who became world famous for having produced the official portrait of President Barack Obama, in 2018. Even if the essence and the heart of his work have always aimed, above all, to reinterpret the great classics of European painting by integrating black models, “far from the roles of pages and courtesans”. And that’s what it’s all about again in The Maze of Poweraccording to the title of his new exhibition, imagined in 2019 and visible until January 14 at the Quai Branly museum, in Paris.

There we come across “in majesty” portraits of eleven African heads of state, including only one woman: Sahle-Work Zewde, President of the Republic of Ethiopia. These eleven monumental paintings revisit European royal or aristocratic portraits from last centuries with rearing horse against a backdrop of threatening clouds, scepter, golden throne, cannon, rose or sword. A pageantry rich in gilding and drapery that any museum lover remembers having necessarily encountered on multiple occasions in the representations from the courts of Italy, Spain, France, Great Britain or Portugal, notably .

In the manner of monarchs

This time, it is the personalities installed at the top of various African states who are shown through these eleven richly adorned portraits. A provocation for those who point “ the badge of honor » granted to true potentates. A clever reflection on the imagery of power through the centuries, according to other observers. The colors of the works are all the more shimmering as the room hosting them, on the ground floor of the Quai Branly museum, is plunged into darkness and lined with walls hung in black.

The visitor wanders from the two Congos to Senegal, from Ethiopia to Madagascar, via the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria (see former president Olusegun Obasanjo, presented opposite), Rwanda and Togo (presented at the top of the article). Passing a man on horseback here; there, a setting simulating a battlefield; here again, an almost spring or bucolic scene.

In an illuminating making of, projected in a small adjoining room, the painter explains his staging choices and the conditions in which the different portraits were created. The artist’s network of African friends and acquaintances gave him easier access to French-speaking leaders than to English-speakers on the continent. It is up to the artist to continue to expand his “hunting picture” subsequently… He who now spends part of the year on African soil, between Nigeria, his father’s country, and Senegal, in particular.

Ambitions and representation

The question of the majesty, real or supposed, of these eleven leaders is swept away with a simple wave of the hand by the African-American artist reminding us that he is not there “ to judge their actions”, but to see which classic work they have chosen to divert or reproduce to install themselves there in turn. On one condition, imperative: the model and his entourage only discover the work once it is finished and publicly exhibited.

The premiere of the whole was therefore reserved for the public of Quai Branly. And it must be recognized that certain poses, certain choices (decorated with a cannon, a sword, a golden throne, or a partially concealed sword) are particularly eloquent and seem to say more about the man or the woman concerned only if History judges them. As if the unconscious of these eleven powerful people spoke to us, in spite of themselves… And since the exhibition shows power and those who exercise it, most often, in an absolute and undivided manner, it also says a lot about the imagination that these leaders dream of capturing, the image that they and she would like to project. The works are then revealed in their beautiful but cruel truth, revealing both the politician, and their own caricature… The irony, without a doubt, wins.

Karin Tshidimba