Three young men, chins cocked, command your attention. It’s as if you’re not in a museum looking up at them; rather they’re alive and present, appraising you. What makes Kehinde Wiley’s photorealistic oil portraits of Arab and Ethiopian Israelis so majestic is neither their grand scale nor the gold enamel ornamentation encircling his subjects. It’s their ostentatious gestures, their palpable swagger, that the painter captures.
Wiley is a pickup artist. For the latest chapter of his “World Stage” series on display at the Jewish Museum, he found muses on the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Lod, Israel. His signature — posing men of color in the tradition of classic European masterworks — empowers the marginalized within Diaspora communities. This formula works well in Israel, a land of both promise and conflict where minorities — Ethiopian Jews who emigrated en masse in the 1980s and ’90s and Israeli-born Arabs comprising 20 percent of the population — continue to face prejudice. Wiley also uses his medium to examine the globalization of black American culture, particularly hip-hop, which resonates in these groups abroad because of what it represents: defiance, sovereignty, a voice.
For the painter and his 14 models, it’s not only power that has become accessible, but the region’s rich history, too. A latticework of floral motifs and Judaic iconography — including mystical creatures, zodiac symbols, columns and upside-down hands — sweep in and around the men’s bodies, integrating the old and new, the foreground and background. Wiley calls this “the friction between beginning, middle and end.” Beautifully and meticulously curated, the museum juxtaposes Wiley’s contemporary works with artifacts from its own collection. They are preserved under glass cases opposite the hanging paintings, wherein they see a new life, context and audience.
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While the exhibit’s centerpiece is a portrait of Beta-Israeli Alios Itzhak, the highlight of the show is a row of four smaller, intimate likenesses.
Among the first three who face you straight on is rapper Kalkidan Mashasha, also the most striking. With a self-assured posture but gentle gaze he proudly flaunts the Ethiopian flag patched to his sleeve. In the fourth painting, Mukat Brhan — pierced, dreadlocked, a YouTube logo printed on his T-shirt — casts his gaze not ahead, but aloft. Entrenched in his roots — the bright green vines and Hebrew texts weaving behind him — this Gen Nexter looks to the future. Maybe he’s hopeful, like Wiley himself, that someday, regardless of skin color, ethnicity or religion, we can all find common ground.