Born Los Angeles, CA, 1977. Lives New York and Beijing
Regard the Class Struggle as a Main Link in the Chain, 2007
Oil and enamel on canvas
96 x 72 inches
Collection Miami Art Museum, museum purchase with funds from the MAM Collectors Council
Photo credit: Image courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles
As an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Kehinde Wiley yearned for ways to collaborate with the surrounding community. Thus began the Passing/Posing series, in which Wiley recruited local individuals to enact poses from paintings reproduced in art history books. With virtuosic technique, Wiley painted their portraits at larger-than-life scale, capping each work with an intricate, baroque frame. By inserting Harlem residents into canonical Western portraiture, Wiley provoked questions about how and why this hallowed cultural tradition has typically omitted or misrepresented subjects of African ancestry.
Regard the Class Struggle as a Main Link in the Chain is special within Wiley's oeuvre in that the figure's pose is appropriated not from Western portraiture, but from a Chinese Social Realist painting. (Wiley's sitter picked the image out of the book Chinese Propaganda Posters, published by Taschen.) The original poster depicts a boyish-looking woman holding a whistle as she exuberantly calls on her comrades to join her in labor. During the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), women were often depicted as muscular and energetic, and cast in roles traditionally associated with men; the "Iron Women," as they were called, were used to promote gender equality. This kind of scrambling of gender ideals is consistent with an important aspect of Wiley's work that is sometimes overlooked: his critique of the ways in which racism and sexism converge in stereotypes of African-Americans. The figure in Regard the Class Struggle is positioned gracefully amid an ultra-saturated flurry of decorative motifs, including flowers, butterflies, and a delicate filigree pattern. Thus, Wiley confounds stereotyped expectations of black maleness with elements that are traditionally coded as feminine. The painting is further charged with the tension between "bling" culture's simultaneous embrace of and revolt against patriarchal capitalist values, and Maoist ideals of an austere, classless society.