Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Israel at the Jewish Museum presents a diverse array of Israeli men alongside textiles from the museum that inspired the paintings’ backgrounds. We asked curator Karen Levitov a series of questions about Wiley and the inspiration for The World Stage: Israel. For those interested in seeing more of Wiley’s work, his An Economy of Grace opens at Sean Kelly Gallery on May 5th.
What was your first encounter with Wiley’s work?
We first became aware of Wiley’s World Stage: Israel project when we learned of the availability of the painting Alios Itzhak, which we immediately loved and decided to purchase, as the background of the painting was inspired by a papercut in our collection. From there, we had the idea to create an exhibition around this painting and the papercut source material. The exhibition includes fourteen of Wiley’s World Stage: Israel paintings as well as eleven works of ceremonial art from the Museum’s collection selected by Wiley. Kehinde was very excited to show textiles and papercuts along with his painting and was involved in every aspect of selecting and displaying them.
What was Wiley’s connection with Israel?
Wiley’s Israeli portraits are the latest in his World Stage project, which also includes China, Brazil, India and Sri Lanka, and Africa (Nigeria and Senegal). He spent a month in Israel in 2010, traveling to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Lod to find the subjects of his paintings on the streets, in nightclubs, and other public venues.
What do you find most inspiring about Wiley’s work?
In his Israel series, Wiley brings together the contemporary—the young men who pose for the portraits—and the traditional—the ceremonial papercuts that are the source for the backgrounds—to create a dynamic new form that empowers and enlivens both.
How do you see the interplay of the chosen objects with Kehinde’s works?
Kehinde selected the textiles and papercuts based on their decorative motifs, which resonate with the flora and fauna seen in the backgrounds of his paintings, as well as their broad geographic range. The ceremonial artworks range from the Ottoman Empire to Morocco, Italy, Uzbekistan, and even one made in Brooklyn.
Talk to us about the political element of the show, juxtaposing portraits of Jewish and Arab men with the text on the frames, “Can we all get along?”
Wiley has stated that when he visited Israel, he was looking to find out what life was like for young people. In the video accompanying the exhibition, he talks about going to a nightclub in Tel Aviv and encountering “young white Israelis with dreadlocks down their backs fraternizing with Arab-Israelis and Ethiopian-Jews all in the same room." He adds, "This is something I definitely don’t necessarily see when I turn on the television every day and think about what a night in Israel is like or what a night in Tel Aviv is like.”
The frames are spectacular.
Wiley designed these frames specifically for his World Stage: Israel paintings. The artist-designed and hand-carved wooden frames are crowned with emblems borrowed from Jewish decorative tradition: the hands of a Kohen (priest) and the Lion of Judah, symbolizing blessing, power, and majesty. Each supports a text: for the portraits of Jewish men the Ten Commandments are used. For Arab men, Wiley chose the plea of Rodney King, victim of a police beating that sparked race riots in the artist’s home city of Los Angeles in 1991: “Can we all get along?”
How have visitors reacted to the show?
Here is a sampling of visitor comments:
“One of the best New York City museum exhibits of 2012.”
“Mr. Wiley, I love the way you express the past, present, and future in your painting. I have never seen anything like this.”
“Very moving and unusual.”
“A fascinating view of Israel that most people don’t even know exists. Beautifully executed.”