Shantavia Beale II, 2012
Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977). Shantavia Beale II, 2012. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 cm). Collection of Ana and Lenny Gravier. © Kehinde Wiley. (Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York)
Read more at https://vmfa.museum/exhibitions/exhibitions/kehinde-wiley-a-new-republic/#SvDH5bSVQBTFoGUr.99
Reflection by Erin Monaghan
Art has always been a beautiful, emotive mystery to me. Looking back on childhood exposure to art, the strongest memories I have are often accompanied by a sense of wonder, confusion, intimacy, and distinctive separation. I remember being seven years old and confused about why my friend had a painting of a naked woman holding a hula-hoop vertically around her body at her house. When I asked why they had it, she told me, “My parents like art.” I could understand that it was a nice painting, but why someone would want it in their living room was beyond me. At age twelve I first went to my best friend’s house for the first time and saw a bust of a girl that looked out of place. Her dad is an artist, so there beautiful paintings of her family all over the house, but this girl I had never seen before. By this age I had learned to keep my questions to myself for fear of seeming rude or ignorant, but the gaze in her eyes was surprisingly piercing and more intimate than I thought a sculpture could be. In art club at thirteen, I was able to choose a piece of art to paint on the wall at school. I chose a photograph of a sculpture set before a sunset. The pose of the Native American man about to shoot an arrow towards the moon in front of the orange and purple sky was one of the most beautiful pieces of art I had ever seen. I spent hours looking at that painting, and only saw it with more awe. Later, while on our class trip to Washington D.C., I saw it in the lobby of the National Museum of the American Indian. I stopped and stared, jaw dropped, seeing it with new amazement. I felt visceral connection to that piece, but also the separation through the authoritative respect that it commanded.
Walking into Kehinde Wiley’s exhibit entitled A New Republic was as if I had experienced all of these pieces of art from my past at once. Walking in, I was awed by the magnitude and grandeur of the each painting. Each was distinctly ornate and proud. The juxtaposition between the contemporary people of color, mostly black Americans, and backgrounds reminiscent of traditional European portraits were complex and intriguing. Then there was the confusion that comes from being outside of your culture. Because of the heavy focus on contemporary black culture, I was outside of my norm, and outside of my comfort zone. There was much that I did not understand, simply because it came from a culture that I am not fluent in. But even though I am an outsider to this culture, seeing A New Republic at the VMFA allowed me to look through a window and catch a glimpse of Kehinde Wiley’s perspective. I could feel the pride that exuded through every painting, sculpture, and stained glass. I saw the intimacy of everyday lives that shined through the quirks and personalities of his subjects. This is what art is. Art does not necessitate understanding; it is an experience and a window into the life of another. I am grateful for the opportunity to see things differently.