The artwork that offers the loudest dialogue to Warhol and the Western art canon, in general, is Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of men of color. The similarities and differences between Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot and Wiley’s Ice T are fascinating. Warhol appropriated a newspaper photograph documenting the Civil Rights Movement. Wiley appropriates the icons, colors, and medium of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1806 Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne. Warhol took the photograph out of its newspaper context to make it into a piece of art -- a Warhol piece of art. Wiley adds context by replacing Napoleon Bonaparte with American gangster rapper Ice T, creating a new meaning using an established Western image of the royal white male ruler. Warhol’s work was for the elite art world. Wiley’s Ice T belongs to the National Portrait Gallery -- it belongs to the American people. Ice T is an American artwork in the mold of the American Dream. What is the American Dream but the promise of the self-made man regardless of birth lineage? And which man has made more of himself from the humblest of beginnings than the African-American? Unlike Shetterly and Stone in Captain Confederacy, Wiley puts the Black man as the nation’s victorious symbol.
This painting is, like Michael Ray Charles’s work, is visually striking. It is meant to stir emotion and have the viewer question history with its use of a Black man in casual attire (cap, black sneakers, black sweatpants). Two noteworthy differences between this painting and the Ingres one is the positioning of the subject’s heads and the placement of the ermine hood.
Napoleon looks straightforward at the viewer (Musée de l'Armée). His head is as level as his gaze upon the viewer. Ice T’s head, however, is tilted upwards, the brim of his cap casting a shadow across his forehead. We the viewer are looked down upon by him -- why? Is Ice T’s head tilt another symbol like the throne and scepters of his superiority over the reader? Or is he wary of the viewer? A Black man growing up in a racist society ascend to a throne. What did Ice T have to endure, what sacrifices and sins did he commit, to make it to that hallowed seat? What sacrifices and sins did the Black men who did not make it to the throne endure? Whether tilted in superiority or defense, Ice T does not gaze directly at t, e viewer unlike Napoleon, making it easier for the viewer to gaze upon him without the fear of “being caught.”
Secondly, Napoleon wears the royal ermine, his “head emerging from a body drowned in an imposing costume, [the attire] effectively sets it apart from the [then] usual depictions of the emperor” (Musée de l'Armée). Ice T’s ermine is splayed across the throne he sits, leaving his bare, muscled arms visible as it holds the same scepters Napoleon does. Ice T does not envelope himself in the traditional attire of divine, empirical power. Instead, he wears the clothes of any American: comfy, affordable, and accessible. Yet his attire is black, like his flesh. His arms, like John Stewart’s and the alien in Strange Fruit, are his power. Once again, the Black man’s power is made physical -- he is made physical. Wiley’s Studio states that his works blur “the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men” (Kehinde Wiley Studio). Is that occurring here, where once again the Black man’s physicality is on display as his power?
There are neither singular nor simple answers to these questions. The lack of a singular and simple answer for a work about black masculinity is a triumph. Again like Warhol, Wiley’s work succeeds in provoking questions, and with a history of reducing black men to the same stereotypes and roles, provoking questions is a form of resisting racist and sexist representations.
Musée de l'Armée. “Napoleon I on the Throne or His Majesty the Emperor of the French on His Throne by Ingres.” Musée De L'Armée, 10 Dec. 2012, www.musee-armee.fr/en/collections/museum-treasures/object.html?tx_mdaobjects_object%5Baction%5D=show&tx_mdaobjects_object%5Bcontroller%5D=Object&tx_mdaobjects_object%5BidContentPortfolio%5D=537&tx_mdaobjects_object%5Bobject%5D=551&cHash=d5b34980f2912c609d32c6e45f75d5d7.
Kehinde Wiley Studio. “KEHINDE WILEY STUDIO: Brooklyn, NY.” Kehinde Wiley Studio, kehindewiley.com/about/.