The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar, organized by The Studio Museum in Harlem, comprises ten paintings (nine are on view at Artpace) made following the artist’s stay in Nigeria and Senegal. These vibrant canvases exemplify the artist’s current practice: presenting everyday people as figures of power and authority by adopting pictorial conventions found in Western art history. In this body of work, he also used poses based on public sculptures that celebrate Nigerian and Senegalese independence from colonial rule. The patterns of the enveloping backgrounds are based on traditional clothing worn by West African women.
Dakar, the capital of Senegal, is one of the region’s largest international ports. The city is historically diverse, representing a melting pot of peoples that include the Lebou, Wolof, French, and Moroccans. This dynamic profusion of cultural variation is mirrored in the physical attributes of the city, which range from metropolitan areas dominated by skyscrapers to high-density, low-lying rural neighborhoods. Dakar is home to Sandaga Market, well known for its colorful textiles; sellers also tout a variety of wares such as electronics, food, and sundries. In Wiley’s portraits Dakar’s cultural heterogeneity works in tandem with the city’s interplay between contemporary and traditional practices. The artist’s color-saturated and richly patterned images are a reflection of the different textures of the city.
By working out of temporary studios, Wiley can study local culture from a dual micro/macro perspective, focusing on the individual experience-through his use of local models-while investigating larger cultural attitudes. For example, the artist’s interest in music, articulated in past works through his portraits of Ice T and Grandmaster Flash, is an integral element of the current series as well. Original music in both Lagos and Dakar is an important aspect of daily life, and a range of genres such as highlife, mbalax, juju, and fuji can be found in venues throughout both cities. The global impact of these styles is widespread and has influenced American Funk, Cuban Rumba, and Jamaican Reggae. While both the subject matter of the paintings and the style of music associated with the anonymous figures portrayed are strikingly different from the artist’s portraits of U.S. hip-hop and rap artists, Wiley’s approach of infusing his subjects with a sense of power typically reserved for highly esteemed historic figures is the same. By thus empowering his subjects, he elevates the ordinary man’s fight for social change to the status of a historically important struggle. This authority is conveyed in the monumental scale and powerful comportment of his figures, who engage viewers with an assertive and direct gaze that demands they be looked at and taken into consideration, rejecting their consignment to the sidelines of history.