Kehinde Wiley stands with his sculpture 'An Archeology of Silence' in his de Young exhibition of the same name. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Photo by Gary Sexton)
I did not watch the video of Tyre Nichols being tortured and killed by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee on Jan. 7. For my own self care, I have not watched an eye-witness or body-cam video of a Black person being killed by police or vigilantes since Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, filmed the aftermath of a police officer shooting and killing Castile in 2016. Still, I never avoid or ignore the reality of what happened, or the details of how Black people’s lives are regularly stolen.
Neither does artist Kehinde Wiley, whose new exhibition An Archaeology of Silence tells the story of the Black lives we, as a society, have lost – and continue to lose – to racist, systemic violence both nationally and globally. The 25-piece collection of oil paintings and bronze sculptures, making its U.S. debut, is on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through Oct. 15.
Wiley employs his signature technique of placing modern, Black subjects into historical scenes from Western European art iconography, but this time his subjects aren’t standing tall in triumph – rather, they are in various forms of repose, referencing works of fallen soldiers and warriors. Some of the Black men and women depicted in the works are weary, the subjects’ eyes open and staring at you. Some are wounded. Many are dead.
Followers of Wiley’s work will recognize similarities to his 2008 series Down. When he made those pieces, we, as a culture, did not yet know Oscar Grant’s name, or Trayvon Martin’s. While the works in An Archaeology of Silence were all created and completed over the last three years, inspired by the long list of names we now know, Wiley revisited some of his old source material from Down in preparing this exhibition.
“Really this body of work is a coming together of, quite possibly, my entire career,” he said at the press preview, “allowing different movements to become galvanized in one epic body of work.”
On a technical level, the exhibition is a stunning display of size and breadth. Three of the show’s pieces, including the title work – a 17.5-foot-tall bronze statue of a slain Black man draped over the saddle of a horse – are the largest the museum has ever installed.
On an emotional level, it is stirring. Feelings of grief sit alongside awe. The intricate details of each subject’s life are crafted into every piece – the sneakers and jewelry they wore, the way their hair was styled. These are “monuments” in reverence to those lost, as Claudia Schmuckli, the museum’s curator-in-charge of contemporary art, writes in her curatorial statement.
At the press preview, Wiley walked and talked us through the exhibition, and at first my ears were more attuned than my eyes. But toward the end of Wiley’s tour, I peeled off from the scrum surrounding him to retrace my steps through the gallery and see each piece anew. When I reached a bronze sculpture of two slain young Black men titled Death of Two Soldiers, I took in the two bodies lying side by side.
There, the exhibition as a whole hit me. And I felt anger. I felt angry that this exhibition had cause to exist. That, in the most reductive description of the show, I was walking around and observing Black death on public display. Again.
The museum’s team prepared for this kind of visceral, emotional reaction. Not only does the exhibition offer a “Respite Room” attached to the show, but the de Young will roll out a slate of public programming around grief and mourning on select free-admission Saturdays. Abram Jackson, the museum’s inaugural director of interpretation, co-led that work alongside Devin Malone, director of public programs.
“I heard word from folks who visited the exhibition at the Venice Biennale that they heard folks crying in the galleries because it was such an impactful exhibition,” Jackson said. “And I knew that if we were going to be the first museum to host it in the United States, that we had to situate it locally and that we had to really protect our visitors who are so closely connected to systemic violence.”
The Respite Room offers a place to sit and reflect, along with a small library of books to peruse with titles like Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey and Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown, as well as poetry collections of Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks.
“I’ve really been thinking about what it means for an institution – museums, specifically – to think about spatial justice. What it means to relinquish space to the public and repurpose institutional space so that it can be used rather than simply visited,” said Malone, who designed the Respite Room.
In addition to the Respite Room, the museum worked with a group of seven “Interpretation Partners” Jackson recruited to inform the show’s presentation – including advising on the language used in the exhibition guide and art descriptions. Partners include local Black community leaders, such as the Rev. Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant and CEO of the Oscar Grant Foundation, and Hodari Davis, co-founder of the Life is Living Festival.
Jackson recalled one of the meetings with the partners where they dissected the show’s curatorial language. “A lot of the original language had ‘state-sanctioned violence’ written and that seemed to conjure for most people, police brutality,” Jackson said. “And the partners were like, ‘Well, we really need to broaden this because this is about systemic violence. This is about the school to prison pipeline. This is about environmental racism. This is about infant mortality for Black babies and how Black mothers are treated in the medical industrial complex.’”
The lens of Black Bay Area leaders and activists, coupled with the Bay’s long history of freedom movement building, provide a fitting first U.S. home for An Archaeology of Silence. That, and Wiley’s personal history in the region.
“I think San Francisco is the perfect place for this work to come, because it really is a homecoming for me. This is where I developed my chops as a young artist,” said Wiley, who graduated from the (now-closed) San Francisco Art Institute in 1999. And he sees parallels between his own development as an artist and the development of the country’s social justice movements.
“It’s a coming of age for me, but it’s arguable that [the Bay Area]’s a coming of age for America,” Wiley said. “This part of the world was at the core of the cultural revolution that America was so heavily marked by in the end of the ’50s and the core of the ’60s. ... [The Bay Area] became the site of resistance for people of color, for the marginalized, for the queer.”
It’s this type of resistance that Wiley embeds within the exhibition, amidst all the imagery of death. In one of the mural-sized paintings, a woman lays lifeless on a grassy knoll against a backdrop of mostly brown, dead leaves – a distinct departure from the colorful foliage that typically surrounds Wiley’s subjects. Yet a smattering of vibrant, living flowers and vines grow and persist around her fallen figure.
“There’s a stubborn holding on to life and celebration in the midst of all of this suffering,” Wiley said. “I wanted to be able to use one of these moments – one of these dark moments in our cultural atmosphere – to talk about something that’s sure, a little bit of a downer, but also defiantly present, defiantly alive and imbibed with a type of resilience and virtue.”
‘Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence’ is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through Oct. 15. Details on the exhibition and associated programming are here.
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