“The great heroic, often white, male hero dominates the picture plane and becomes larger than life, historic and significant. That great historic storytelling of mythmaking or propaganda is something we inherit as artists.” – Kehinde Wiley quoted in The Guardian (N. Sayej, “Kehinde Wiley: 'When I first started painting black women, it was a return home’,” The Guardian, Jan 9 2019).
Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Kehinde Wiley grew up exposed to classical art from an early age. Weekend visits to the Huntington Art Gallery, and a summer spent studying art in Russia meant that he was very familiar with the genre of Western portraiture and figure painting. After earning his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (1999) and MFA from Yale University (2001), Wiley became an Artist-in-Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem. It was during this period, in the early 2000s, that Wiley began to create portraits of the young black men that he would meet on the streets of Harlem, portraying them in the style of old master paintings by Renaissance artists. In 2018, Wiley was chosen to paint the official portrait of President Barack Obama, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.
Sainte Lucie depicts a young black man wearing a brightly colored football jersey and an orange bandanna. Yet he holds a green branch in one hand, and grasps a plate containing eyes in another. These objects are the traditional attributes of Saint Lucy – Sainte Lucie in French – a catholic saint and the patron saint of virgins and the city of Syracuse. She also came to be thought of as the patron of sight, and from medieval times onward would often depicted be carrying a dish containing her eyes. The green branch symbolized her martyrdom, and is a symbol of victory over evil.
By replacing the traditional European female figure of Saint Lucy with a young black man from Harlem, Wiley engages in dialogues of class, race, and masculinity, challenging art historical tropes and the images that we are familiar with seeing in art. He paints his subjects wearing contemporary streetwear, yet situates them against patterned backgrounds drawn from classical decorative arts.
“Status and class and social anxiety and perhaps social code are all released when you look at paintings of powerful individuals from the past,” notes Wiley. “However, there’s something to be mined and gained by looking at them in a new way. What happens when you see black bodies that have not previously been celebrated on the walls of the most important institutions in the world? What happens when you see them dance across the screen of a canvas? They start to read differently. It becomes a question of “How do we code the body?” Not only in current time, but how does that current time reflect everything that we know historically, art historically and sociohistorically?” (Kehinde Wiley, in an interview with Richard Holland, Duncan MacKenzie, and Dr. Amy Mooney, Bad at Sports; Episode 263 , podcast, January 15 2013).