On ViewSean Kelly Gallery
April 28 – June 17, 2023
Renowned American painter Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) returns with his signature portraits inspired by recent visits to Cuba. On view from April 28 through June 17 at Sean Kelly Gallery, HAVANA features new oil paintings, works on paper, and a three-channel film that explores the evolution of Black performance culture in Cuba. Known for his vibrant use of color and spotlight on the global African Diaspora, Wiley fixates on themes of circus, celebration, and carnival, placing subjects in lush compositions alongside multihued patterns. HAVANA examines the dynamic way of life that Wiley observed in 2015 and 2022, putting on display the connections he made with the Afro-Cuban performance community.
Nuance and depth pervades the show. Wiley shows the public how Black Cubans express love and happiness in the context of radical defiance. During his travels, the artist witnessed carnivals, Mardi Gras celebrations, and street processions during which his subjects came alive in real time—in the works, the public can access the true impact of these festivities, which take place in a country at the intersection of Europe (formerly the enslaver) and Diasporic Africa (home of the formerly enslaved).
Several paintings in particular stand out. Portrait of Yaima Polledo & Isabel Pozo (2023) is an oil on linen work showcasing two regal, seated Cuban women wearing yellow and pink dresses with coordinating hair pieces and headscarves. The subjects are dressed for celebration and they appear entirely at ease. Wiley’s careful application of oil paint allows the light to catch their eyes and cheekbones; the women take center-stage alongside their intricately patterned formalwear. A background of lush greenery and blooming flowers surrounds the subjects and pushes forward, engulfing the viewer, too, as Polledo and Pozo tilt their chins just slightly and make eye contact with their audience. From far away, the public might expect to see European royalty based on the posing alone—yet through this composition Wiley offers something entirely unique. The result is intimate, captivating, and rife with detail. The women wear gold rings and immaculate lace, their open hands beckon; a lone bare foot with rose-gold painted nails appears in the composition, setting the tone for the soiree.
In Portrait of Juan Cabrera Pulido & Emilio Hernandez Gonzalez (2023), the performer-subjects wear informal attire, but are no less regal than Polledo and Pozo. A background of island fruit, purple florals, and verdant leaves elevates the composition while here again, the subjects occupy the center of the linen canvas. These men stand back-to-back, bodies gently connecting from hip to shoulder. Both wear bandanas and name-brand sneakers—Converse and Pumas—as thick, green vines mask parts of their lower bodies. The men’s arms are tightly muscled, their gazes stern as they engage with the viewer, chins tilted and hands closed off. Cabrera Pulido holds a wooden stick in two fists, while Hernandez Gonzalez—tattoos on view near his shoulder and beneath the mesh of his shirt—crosses his arms. These subjects appear powerful yet calm, honest yet certain of their capabilities. Their confidence is palpable. Wiley shows audiences that a celebration doesn’t require joy or laughter in the literal sense, but simply means coming together for a common purpose.
Portrait of Rassiel Alfonso Leonard & Nairobys C. Placeres Riviero (2023) depicts a man holding another wooden performance stick next to a woman dressed in a mostly red bodysuit and tall socks, her right hand placed firmly on her companion’s shoulder. Here, too, the pair appears serious, standing tall and gazing just slightly to the side at their audience. These performers wear sneakers; Alfonso Leonard is dressed in gray sweatpants rolled mid-calf and a sleeveless pastel shirt, and Placeres Riviero stands by his side. A background of blue, yellow, and pink flowers in a tangle of green vines surrounds them from every angle. Wiley has a knack for unveiling his noble subjects’ physical and emotional strength.
These sitters know themselves well and have come outdoors to celebrate—to honor their culture and surroundings. The same can be said for the artist’s film, on view in the downstairs gallery. Titled Havana (2015-2023), the 12-minute video provides a narrative and documentary view of Cuba’s cultural history. The work features interviews and performances by members of Raices Profundas, a celebrated Afro-Cuban performing ensemble founded in 1975. “The film is an attempt to place the subjects of the paintings in a more accurate light,” Wiley explains. “It’s important that the process be seen. I wanted this to be more than just paintings on the wall.”
No doubt Wiley has created something special. The film offers a 360-degree view into the artist’s creative process, underscoring his commitment to painting and his relationships with his subjects. Audiences would do well to experience all the works in HAVANA and connect with this portion of the African Diaspora.