Reviewed by Sam Schwartzkopf
This summer, visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to immerse yourself in Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. This multimedia exhibit will have families marveling at its artistic beauty and social themes, as it raises important questions about race, identity, and the politics of representation. Kehinde Wiley, an African American and one of the most popular artists in America today, uses his art to ask important questions, the foremost of which exhibit curator Dr. Sarah Eckhardt believes is, “Who controls the image of young black men?”
The beauty inherent in every inch of Wiley’s oil paintings, stained glass windows, gold-leaf wood panels, and bronze sculptures makes this immense question far more approachable for younger children. Wiley depicts people of color as glorious in their own right, integrating elements from classic paintings like well-known poses, props, and ornate backgrounds that evoke an aristocratic style of portraiture. His focus on portraiture allows the models, all of African, Middle Eastern, or Indian heritage, to grab the viewer and communicate a message of pure, unadulterated empowerment.
Using what the artist calls “street casting” to select models for his portraits, Wiley connects with real people to flesh out their narratives in art. His male subjects appear in jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and tennis shoes. His decision to dress female models in custom-made Givenchy elevates the aesthetic appeal of his new work depicting women and girls, implicitly affirming the value of women of color in American society. Messages such as these cannot necessarily be taught from a textbook, but in an increasingly diverse and culturally rich world, there is an imminent need for children to see the beauty in every individual. Wiley’s portrayal of his models as simultaneously stoic and sensitive will get kids thinking and spur family discussion about pressing topics.
Because the subject matter is appealing to such a large age range, the VMFA has taken important steps to make Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic especially family-friendly. The ARTLounge, a refreshing, engaging space at the close of the exhibit, gives off a classroom vibe. Kids can explore Wiley’s work on touch screens, and pick up their own maps of the museum and postcards with clues, each one leading to a work reminiscent of one of Wiley’s featured pieces. Families with children of all ages will get something from this exhibit. Toddlers and yes, even infants in strollers will be mesmerized by the brilliance of Wiley’s wall-sized paintings especially.
The VMFA is the perfect place to spend a summer afternoon in Richmond. Make your visit especially worthwhile by visiting Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. The work is delightfully detailed and intricate, but Wiley’s message emanates loud and clear. Family members of every age and artistic inclination will appreciate the exhibit’s visual splendor and thematic depth.
The ticketed exhibit runs through September 5. The VMFA is free and open to the public 365 days a year. For details about tickets and that family membership, visit VMFA.