At the Kehinde Wiley exhibition, Brooklyn Museum, April 2015.
At the end of last April, I saw the Kehinde Wiley exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Wiley is best known for his portraits of everyday Black men in heroic poses that are often based on old master paintings.
The exhibit was breathtaking, and the experience of walking into the first gallery of the show is something I will never forget. Mad props to the Brooklyn Museum for creating the most moving and dramatic entrance into a show that I have ever encountered. A lot of the paintings in this show were huge–up to 96″ x 72″ and even larger; and they were beautiful, every single one.
As much as I loved the paintings, I loved seeing the Black men at the show even more. Their expressions ranged from amused to rapt to proud, and I wondered what it must have felt like to walk through an entire exhibition of works celebrating their beauty and power.
Several of the drawings in this part of the 1001 Black Men series are the result of me looking at real-life Black men looking at Wiley’s paintings of Black men. The background of each of these drawings evokes the richly patterned backgrounds for which the artist is known.
I spotted this brother wearing a kufi during my last trip to New York. He was on the subway, and in real life, he was actually wearing a coat (it was kind of chilly, but not fully cold). I noticed him because he was reading a newspaper on the train, a common sight during childhood trips on the Long Island Rail Road, but a rare occurrence in the current era of smartphones and tablets.
At the Whitney Museum, New York, New York.
On my recent research trip to the Brooklyn Historical Society, I traveled to Manhattan to see the Archibald Motley exhibit at the Whitney Museum. If you’re not familiar with Archibald Motley, he was a wonderfully talented Modernist painter, frequently associated with the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve been familiar with Motley’s work because of my work in Harlem Renaissance literature. I’d seen a few of his paintings in books; but I’d never seen even one of his paintings in real life, until I stepped out of the elevator and into this exhibit. For a moment, the experience of being in the same room with so many of Motley’s works took my breath away. I don’t even know how to express the impact of experiencing the work of a Black man, born in the nineteenth century, who dared to make his art his life. He paved the way for so many of us. How can I not work to the best of my ability? How can I not strive to prove myself worthy of his path?
At the 42nd Street-Times Square transit station, New York, New York.
The massive transit complex at Times Square-42nd St. is a little intimidating. The signs are actually quite clear, and if you simply pay attention to where you’re being directed, it’s pretty hard to get on the wrong train. Still, the experience of being underground, with so very many people, in a complex of stations whose various levels of track seem to extend more and more deeply into the earth can only be described as unsettling.
At the same time, passing through this station was also kind of amazing. There were so many Black people everywhere I looked, and I wanted to do portraits of so many of the men around me. It’s been a while since I’ve experienced so much ethnic diversity within the Black population of a single region, and I can’t wait to go back with more pens and more paper and a lot more time.