Painter Kehinde Wiley Brings Hip-Hop Style to the Jewish Museum

By Amy Zimmer on February 22, 2012 2:39pm 

Kehinde Wiley's "Alios Itzhak (The World Stage: Israel)", 2011, oil and gold enamel on canvas.
Kehinde Wiley's "Alios Itzhak (The World Stage: Israel)", 2011, oil and gold enamel on canvas.
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© Kehinde Wiley; courtesy Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

MANHATTAN — The painter Kehinde Wiley became famous for his boldly patterned and brightly colored portraits of African American men in hip-hop clothing posing as emperors, saints or other nobles in the style of the Old Masters of 18th and 19th century European art.

He’s painted Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Ice T and LL Cool J and done a series featuring men from 125th Street. More recently he’s turned his eye abroad, venturing to Dakar, Lagos, Rio and beyond to find models.

His latest series focused on young men in Israel, from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, painted on a background of Jewish ceremonial art.

Fourteen large-scale paintings from this series will be on view for the first time in New York at the Jewish Museum from March 9 through July 29. The museum will pair the painter’s works with large textiles that Wiley chose from its collection.

The show was inspired by the Jewish Museum’s new acquisition of Wiley’s "Alios Itzhak," (2011), a 9-foot tall portrait of a young Jewish Ethiopian-Israeli man surrounded by an intricate background inspired by a traditional Jewish papercut from the Upper East Side institution’s own collection.

"My driving question was how do we take a nation with this level of intensity with regards to how we look at it, and go beyond the media stereotypes about national identity," Wiley told the Los Angeles Times last year about the series.

"What does an Israeli even look like?" he asked. "There are Arab Israelis, there are Ethiopian Jews — the Falasha, Ashkenazi Jews from every part of Eastern and Western Europe. So there is immense diversity."

Wiley scouted discos, malls, bars and sporting venues in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 2010 to find his subjects. He then formally posed the young men and took their photographs, using those images for the basis of his elaborate paintings, museum officials said. 

The 35-year-old Wiley — who has studios in New York, Beijing and Dakar and had a big solo show four years ago at the Studio Museum in Harlem — hand-carved wooden frames for his Israel series incorporating Hebrew text and traditional Jewish symbols.

For the Jewish Israeli subjects Wiley painted, he included text from the Ten Commandments; for his Arab Israeli subjects, he included the "Can we all get along?” plea from Rodney King, whose 1991 police beating sparked the L.A. riots.

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