June/July/Aug 2009

Black Light

Nicole Rudick


In 2006, Kehinde Wiley painted Le Roi la Chasse, in which a T-shirted young black man imitates the pose assumed by Charles I in Anthony van Dyck’s 1635 canvas of the same name. Though Wiley’s model introduces a casualness into the king’s formal comportment by tossing back his head as if to saunter forward, it is the version of van Dyck’s pastoral portrait in Black Light—Wiley’s first foray into photography—that provides a strikingly contemporary interpretation. Here, the model gazes unswervingly out from the picture, catching us with his look and, through photography’s immediacy, holding us fast. The play of power in his expression is daunting also because of the intense illumination, a “super rapturous light,” as Wiley describes it, which brings the sitter’s blackness fully into view—physically and historically. Each of the images situates a young African-American man in a portrait drawn from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries and incorporates decorative floral elements, tangled patterns, and brash colors that often vibrate against the hip-hop fashions. The original contexts, however (Annunciations, portraits of saints and nobility), don’t always jibe with the sitters’ expressions (defiance, vulnerability, unease). This caesura, lit by blazing light, exposes as much about the construction of contemporary blackness as about more historical conceptions of race.

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