Kehinde Wiley, The Virgin Martyr Cecilia (Ndey Buri), 2021. Bronze, 29 x 107 x 52.5 cm. Photo: © 2021 Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley


Museum of Fine Arts

All art is best experienced in person, but Kehinde Wiley’s paintings and sculptures especially deserve to be seen firsthand. His works are literally monumental, and the power of their immersive scale gets lost in translation when they’re viewed in reproductions. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, their presence makes an impact, not just for their size, but for the somber, almost religious, mood they collectively evoke. “An Archaeology of Silence” (on view through May 27, 2024) is an art exhibition, but it’s also a space for contemplation and perhaps even for grieving, not unlike the nearby Rothko Chapel, and it seems equally freighted with the weight of history.

The show brings together more than two dozen large paintings and cast-bronze sculptures that Wiley produced during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. During lockdown, he was residing at Black Rock, a multidisciplinary artist residency program that he created in Senegal. Inspired by West Africa, as well as the intensifying momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, Wiley amplified his artistic intent to address violence against people of color globally. “The archaeology I am unearthing,” he states, is “the specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world.”

Situated firmly in Wiley’s tradition of naturalistic, figurative paintings and sculptures, this body of work takes as its point of departure famous depictions of martyred saints, fallen soldiers, and mythological subjects. His source material includes devotional paintings by Titian and Hans Holbein the Younger, works by Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent, and Hellenistic Greek sculpture. Nearly all of the figures in the exhibition are deceased, wounded, or in repose, in striking contrast to Wiley’s previous works in which his subjects are (almost) invariably dynamic, assertive, and commanding.

In The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (Babacar Mané) (2021), Wiley visually quotes from a painting by Northern Renaissance artist Hans Holbein the Younger. Wiley’s sculpture is recessed into the gallery wall, which creates the effect of staring into a cross-section of a real coffin and seeing the serene, incorrupt body of a young Black man in casual contemporary dress. A second sculpture, inspired by Manet’s The Dead Toreador, has us peer into the coffin of a young Black woman, equally peaceful and lifeless. The dimly lit space seems almost sepulchral, and together these works emphatically make the case that figurative realism remains relevant and capable of expressing profoundly gut-felt statements.

Scale plays an important role here, though only a few of the sculptures echo the immersive reach of the paintings. Most of Wiley’s sculptures are life-size, and some are arrestingly small, like Youth Mourning (El Hadji Malick Gueye), after George Clausen, 1916 (2021), which portrays a crumpled figure kneeling, head in hands. All of Wiley’s works, regardless of their size, are fastidiously detailed. Lean in close, and you’ll swear that you can see every strand of meticulously braided hair (Wiley uses hair in these works as a marker of West African culture).

In An Archaeology of Silence (2021), the show’s larger-than-life namesake, a horse carries a lifeless figure slumped across its saddle. Wiley’s bronze statue, which punctuates the exhibition space, directly addresses the traditional equestrian monument—historically charged with machismo and aspirations of empire—and stands as a counterpoint to Confederate monuments in particular.

Two striking takeaways emerge from within these moodily dark galleries: visually, there is the realism, with its unsparing detail; emotionally, there is the palpable sense of suffering and pathos. Yet Wiley’s subjects also exude a strange peace, recalling the layering of sadness and serenity in Michelangelo’s Pietà, a work that also movingly, and poetically, addresses unspeakable sorrow and death in a way that manages to somehow be beautiful.