Favorite Face | September 2020
Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Toks Adewetan (The King of Glory), 2016
By Patricia Hickson, Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art
Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Toks Adewetan (The King of Glory) is currently featured in Protest and Promise: Selections from the Contemporary Art Collection, 1963-2019. Focused on socially and politically engaged art beginning with the Civil Rights Movement, the exhibition includes art as a form of activism, criticism, and empowerment. Wiley’s uplifting image of a young Black man exuding confidence and pride proposes a place for African American men in the tradition of portraiture, long reserved for saints, heroes, aristocracy, and royalty. Breaking down high and low cultural hierarchies, Wiley combines the historical status of portraiture (the representation of class and power) with a social consciousness (the African American community) in his mission to “get some images of Black faces in museums to inspire young African Americans.”
Wiley’s compositions derive from the history of art and are often selected by his sitters. In the studio, the artist asks the subject to go through his art books to select a portrait to be the source image or inspiration for their portrait. Wiley then photographs them in their regular street clothes in a similar composition. Toks Adewetan (a model and freelance photographer from Lagos, Nigeria, who lives in Brooklyn) selected a fourteenth-century Russian icon of Christ. In Wiley’s portrait, depicted from the waist up, Adewetan crosses his arms similarly to the Christ figure. But notably different, Christ’s face is downcast while Adewetan’s chin is held high with the pride and power that Wiley seeks to communicate.