Ethiopian Jews Immortalized

22 Mar

Why the Jewish Museum Goes Gaga for Kehinde Wiley

By Elke Reva Sudin

What does it mean to paint contemporary Jewish people using traditional Jewish ornamentation but not be Jewish? African-American artist Kehinde Wiley paints underrepresented youths with a style that mimics the portraiture of European nobles. He picks his subjects right off the street, paring their Hip hop bling with a wealth of intricate patterns. His latest exhibition, titled World Stage: Israel, is now on view at The Jewish Museum in New York.

Kehinde Wiley, Benediter Brkou, 2011. Oil and gold and silver enamel on canvas, 95.75 x 71.75 in (243.2 x 182.2 cm)

After establishing his persona in the art world, Wiley sought to expand his reach to countries that have been influenced by American Black culture. His new series focuses on Black and Brown youths from countries with developing markets (India, China, Sri Lanka, Lagos & Dakar, Brazil, and now Israel).

Wiley was especially interested in the Ethiopian community in Israel, a new addition to the diverse immigrant nation that has recently been given notice for discrimination in Israeli society. The difference between Wiley’s original series and his Ethiopian subjects is that Ethiopians were never slaves to other Israelis. They are full citizens and are struggling mostly because they are the newest immigrants–it will take a while for the population to catch up in education, and for the rest of the country to get used to the large influx. It is a very contemporary notion to regard the Ethiopian community as part of the greater Jewish community, as the people have only been reunited in the past 20 years, but have spend 2,000 years apart.

Kehinde Wiley recognizes the larger discussion about American trends influencing the world and how that interplays with the diversity in Israel. He chooses to focus on things that have always interested him: his own identity as an African-American gay male, feeling marginalized, and finding people he can relate to. Wiley considers all of his paintings a form of self portraiture, so what we are really seeing in his latest exhibition is how an African American gay male sees diverse Jews as well as Arabs, united in Israel.

Wiley says that he chose to paint people in Israel because Israel is a country that America is interested in. He’s interested in the psychological preferences for the 18-24 markets, and how that is presented in a foreign country. He says, “You really get to know a culture and a country by the way they advertise to a specific community.” It can also be said that he chose to paint subjects in Israel because it is an area of conflict. The conflict has worked for Israeli artists to bring attention to their work in the contemporary art marketplace, so why not work for a non-Israeli artist? Wiley certainly knows a good opportunity when he sees one.

“You try to figure out the decorative culture-aesthetic feel, the history of Jewish people throughout the world.”

Wiley had imagined Israel as a war-torn country, but what he found was an eclectic group of Jews and non Jews all partying together in Tel Aviv. Israel was “more of a gray hue than the black and white pictures I had for myself.” He says that he’s “not interested in politics for art making” and instead looks at the cultural aspects of these youths in Israel. “We met one person after another so hungry to have their stories told.” Wiley was fascinated with the seamless mixing of Amharic, Hebrew, and English in the Hip hop of the Ethiopian Jews. Wiley finds his subjects by looking for a certain essence of Hip hop–characters with self-confidence, and “a state of grace in the world that you want to capture.”

There is no doubt that the 6 other painters in his studio, the “assistants,” have something to do with forming that elusive quality in Wiley’s portraits. Before heading to Israel, Wiley’s staff did a lot of research on Judaica. “You try to figure out the decorative culture-aesthetic feel, the history of Jewish people throughout the world.”

Wiley used his foolproof method for dynamic art by using vivid and intricate patterns to surround his subjects. This time he used the ornamental traditions of the subject’s religions. For his Jewish subjects, Wiley took patterns from Jewish papercuts and textiles, for the Arab Israelis he included Islamic ornament for their portraits. Wiley comments that his papercuts are a “spiritual and intimate moment–creating a moment of love.” Wiley discovered a European Judaica textile from the Jewish Museum’s collection that he used as a backdrop for one of his new portraits, Alios Itzhak. The Jewish Museum subsequently purchased the completed painting for their permanent collection.

The World Stage: Israel will be on display at the Jewish Museum until July 29, 2012.


to Ethiopian Jews Immortalized


Joel Silverstein

July 27th, 2013 at 6:36 am

It should also be mentioned that this exhibition was accompanied by video interviews of the portrait subjects who were more than willing to talk about how they are culturally and racially discriminated against in Israel. Thus the institutional agenda of Wiley and by extension The Jewish Museum is to air dirty laundry concerning the Jewish community and in effect highlight the ” inherent racism” of Israel. It is what secular liberals who have no connection to Judaism or Israel love to see, by extension thematically paralleling the racial divisions and history of racism in our own country. Whether all this is actually true of Ethiopian experience in Israel is a different story, one more nuanced than the exhibition would suggest.
The paintings were fine, if a bit too hard -edged and illustrative. Perhaps it was all those assistants. The issue is that as beautiful as the paintings might have been , there is room for a counter narrative of Jewish and Israeli cultural integration for the Ethiopians, despite what Mr. Wiley professes. I would never espouse censorship in arts, and Jewish institutions and art should offer many points of view. It is also odd and telling that an institution called the Jewish Museum chooses to present this narrative as the essential one.

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