By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
One of the beautiful things about art is that each person can walk away from it with something different. More folks will be able to experience Black artist Kehinde Wiley’s monumental works thanks to a $1 million grant from Google.org.
The grant allows free admission to see Wiley’s “Archeology of Silence” for eight weekends. The exhibit opened at the de Young Museum in San Francisco on March 18 and continues through Oct. 15.
“Kehinde Wiley: Archeology of Silence” is well worth the drive or train trip from Sacramento to check it out. Museumgoers got a taste of Wiley’s work last summer when his official portrait of former President Barack Obama hung there. The new exhibition comes to the de Young for its U.S. premiere from the Venice Biennale, an annual showing of cultural art in Italy. An expansion of his 2008 “Down” series, “Silence” continues to investigate and question how death and sacrifice have historically been shown through art, and seeks to confront the silence surrounding systemic violence against Black people.
Wiley grew up in south-central Los Angeles at a time when gang warfare was a constant and it wasn’t unusual to hear police helicopters overhead and see the fallout from the violence.
“Archeology of Silence” took root in 2020 during the pandemic and after Wiley watched as protestors across the country took to the streets in outrage after George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“The birth of the show starts as the world shuts down,” Wiley explains in an accompanying film. “I started thinking not only about this explosive moment that triggers the whole world and thinking about Black bodies in a different way, but I started thinking about imaging of bodies slain, historically. I started digging into religious pictures of the fallen Christ, slain soldiers, things that are not erect, postures of domination, but rather the way that we over time have evolved a language of the sacred.
“What I’m trying to do is to unearth a full picture of what it means to be laid bare, to be made prone,” he continues. “You’ll see the sculptures have these tendrils, these vines, slowly continuing the act of living. There’s a resistance in it, the recognition of the slaughter, the terrible history, but also an insistence upon being. They’re also begging that you take them seriously as individuals.”
Wiley wanted to create more than a two-dimensional picture of a moment or political crisis.
“There’s so many opportunities now to talk about lost potential as a means to create a scaffolding for a better future. We have to be able to go back and dig out some of those stories that were not necessarily totally given light to, so that we can point light to where we want to move to.”
A preview of the new exhibit also featured a guided tour by Wiley and remarks from Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Director and CEO Thomas P. Campbell, and Director of Interpretation Abram Jackson.
“Museums are uniquely positioned to thoughtfully present art that engages with our viewers’ first pressing social and political challenges,” Campbell said. “The exhibition’s themes have a particular poignance here in the Bay Area, which has a proud history of advocating for Black and brown people from the founding of the Black Panther Party to the current Black Lives [Matter] movement.”
Early on, Jackson enlisted the help of several “interpretation partners” to help put the exhibit into context.
“I wanted to reach out to organizations and activists who work to dismantle systemic violence against Black people,” Jackson said.
Partners included Rev. Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a transit officer at an Oakland BART station in 2009. The stakeholders met seven times and helped shape how the exhibit literally would be presented, from the language on the explanation cards to sharing stories on the audio guide and the development of a respite space where visitors can go to reflect and decompress.
“The community has been engaged for this exhibition in an extraordinary way,” Jackson said. “And it’s something that we hope to continue to do here at the Fine Arts Museums as an obligation to our various communities here in the Bay Area.”
The $1 million grant from Google.org allows the museum to welcome visitors for free the following weekends:
- April 15–16
- May 20–21
- June 17–18
- July 8–9
- July 29–30
- Aug. 19–20
- Sept. 16–17
Google.org’s grant also supports a special series of workshops titled “The Quiet Hours.” There will be a number of community undertakings and collective mournings from 1-2 p.m. the Saturdays of May 27, Aug. 5 and 19, and Sept. 16 in the de Young’s Piazzoni Murals Room. Paying homage to Black funerary practices, the series is hosted by artist and professor Angela Hennessy and poet, author and public theologian Marvin K. White.
The de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is located in Golden Gate Park at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. For more information, visit famsf.org.