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Kehinde Wiley’s Exhibition in Paris Illuminates African Presidents

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‘This is not a celebration of individual leadership,” – Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley recently opened an amazing exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris. The exhibition is one that offers deep reflection into how the heads of state view themselves as integral parts of Modern African civilization.

The exhibition titled Maze of Power in Paris highlights the complex relationships between African presidents and Western political structures. It sheds light on the commonalities between Western leadership styles and the lack of African culture in the same. Kehinde features 11 portraits of African presidents in various backgrounds. His aim is to allow the audience to be aware of the lack of African values in these government and political systems.

Mr Wileys ‘ Portaits of Nana Akufo- Addo. Presiodent of Ghana , 2023. The image depicts the leader in brightly colored traditional clothing.

“I’m trying to look at the African presidency in images because there is no tradition of it. There is no history surrounding it. The history surrounds Western European cultural hegemony and domination.” he states in his interview with the NY Times.

Instead of engaging in political discussions with his presidential subjects, Mr. Wiley opted for a different approach. He shared a collection of aristocratic, royal, and military portraits from the 17th to 19th centuries. During these interactions, he explores “a vocabulary of power” with the presidents. He allows them the choice to incorporate or disregard these elements, as revealed in his film.

The heads of state choose their own backgrounds and contexts that align with their reign. This led him to the observation that African political structures bear significant influence from Western colonies. For instance, his portrait of the Senegalese president depicts Mr. Sal holding a large staff against a rocky shore, a direct reference to the biblical Moses story.

Portrait of Macky Sall, President of Senegal, 2023. Image courtesy of the NY Times.

Kehinde Wiley‘s work transcends mere artistic expression. Born in 1977 in Los Angeles, USA, he currently resides and works in various global hubs, including New York, USA; Dakar, Senegal; and Lagos, Nigeria. Through his art, Wiley delves into the visual rhetoric of the powerful, majestic, and sublime, portraying contemporary Africa. In his paintings, these figures adopt heroic poses that directly reference European and American portraiture. This transforming traditional imagery into a powerful commentary on identity, representation, and cultural heritage.

Similar to his renowned 2018 portrait of President Obama, these portraits exhibit diverse backgrounds, mirroring the varied backgrounds of different heads of state. Consequently, the exhibition serves as a display of ego, discernment, and intricate communication strategies, encapsulating the experiences of African leaders within the context of African civilization.

The “Mazes of Power” exhibition delves into the intricate nature of Western hierarchies and will be on display until January 14, 2024. It encourages audiences to contemplate, acknowledge, and embrace the influence of Western structures on contemporary Africa.

Author

Rose Mwikali Musyoki is a creative writer from Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Business and Finance from the University of Embu, Kenya, and is the founder of Bloom Inc, an art startup in Kenya. Currently, she works as a writer for Art News Africa.

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