When they see us: Artistic requiems for the Black body
On a recent Friday morning, I found myself standing before a monumental representation of Black duality. I made a special trek to San Francisco’s de Young Museum to see their new Kehinde Wiley exhibit, An Archeology of Silence.You may not recognize Wiley’s name, but you likely have seen his work. Born in L.A. to a Nigerian father and Black American mother, Wiley was the first Black artist commissioned by the Smithsonian to paint an official presidential portrait.
Wiley’s paintings and sculptures are characterized by hyperrealistic Black figures presented in poses or styles that reference the “Old Masters,” renowned European artists before the 1800s. An Archeology of Silence features colossal paintings and sculptures that force us to confront violence against Black bodies at the hands of police.
“This body of work comes as a direct response to the murder of George Floyd. During that time, so many of us had an opportunity to grieve, to reflect.
“An Archeology of Silence is an archeology of untold stories and lives wasted. It’s an American story about brutality and about erasure. My job is to breathe life back into that erased moment. And through that archeology, create something that’s perhaps living.”
Wiley skillfully turns depictions of the veneration of Christ, and other Christian iconography seen in medieval and Renaissance art, on their head. What I experienced through Wiley’s collection can only be described as discomfort supplanted by transfixion. His naturalistic images of Black men and women are people who look like my neighbors, friends, family. They’re normalized portrayals of Black people, wearing jeans and tees with close attention to the smallest details: from loose, flowing hair with oil on canvas to neat cornrows cast in bronze. His figures’ skin is flawless and the light frames them in a way that stops you in your tracks.
I oscillated between awe and an overwhelming sense of sadness as I viewed every piece. The throughline is beautiful, lithe, Black bodies amidst vibrant patterns of shapes and flowers. Women painted like Greek statues to be admired, to be noticed. This beauty is a sharp contrast to how we overlook, doubt and ignore Black women and girls today
I don’t remember when I realized I was Black. I mean, I’ve always known that I was a Black person. But, I don’t know what awakened me to my racial identity—and racism. When I realized my skin was the same color as dirt? That time a kid in grade school called me a porch monkey because he heard a relative say it? When I first learned what the n-word meant?
“Race is the child of racism; not the father,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his 2015 book Between the World and Me, a letter to his then-teenage son. Race may be a social construct, but it’s one I’ve had to learn to process, to navigate, to survive for more than three decades. Part of my survival has been embracing a duality, the hypervigilance of one’s “twoness” scholar W.E.B. DuBois termed “double-consciousness.”
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
For me, it’s more than code switching or tamping down my inherent Blackness for the comfort of others. It’s an internal struggle to be at peace with myself amid a world underpinned by oppressive systems that don’t value my life in the same way it values others’.
The exhibit halls were darkened except for dim, strategic spotlights and backlighting on sculptures and paintings. I knew I was walking into something heavy, even hallowed before I even laid eyes on the first piece.
I walked slowly, every step intentional as I made my way through semi-darkness. I didn’t want to bump into anyone. But, more than that, I tried to take in each piece with not just what I saw, but what I heard it say.
As I walked through the exhibit halls, I saw George Floyd. I saw Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor and Nina Pop. Posed. Still. Immovable. I saw the humanity, the reverence, the respect their Black bodies didn’t get in real life. I heard the desperate wailing of mothers, sisters, aunties and daughters who would never see their Black men thrive into old age. I heard the sisters we forget, screaming to be heard over the chaos of cities burning for Black brothers.
Bronze sculptures and portraits of lifeless Black bodies—wearing hoodies and basketball sneakers, even clutching a cell phone— presented as martyrs, in positions of pain and suffering with an eerie gracefulness.
I wasn’t surprised that I was one of the only Black people in the exhibit. What unnerved me were the Black teens walking the halls, too. Dark-skinned, wearing basketball sneakers and T-shirts. I saw them. I SAW them. Did they also see themselves here? And, as victim or survivor?
When I first watched the life drain from George Floyd’s body on my TV screen in 2020, I came undone. My sense of self, fractured. I was conflicted because my identities—Black woman from the South, the niece of a cop, daughter of a prosecutor and the wife of a white man—didn’t align in the current social moment. I felt like a mirror that had shattered. I could see myself in all the pieces, but I couldn’t see how I could make them all fit together anymore, or if I ever would.
I also visited the museum’s permanent collection of African art and artifacts, just off the wing with Wiley’s work. There was a kind of “prologue” to the collection, a special exhibition featuring the work of a South African mixed media artist.
Philisa: Zinza Mphefumlo Wami is a site-specific experience of film, photography, sound and installation. As Lhola Amira describes their work:
“THEY specifically examine the wounding effects of colonialism, legacies of land dispossession and ongoing racism on the health of Black people. At the center of THEIR practice are Philisa [Pee-LEE-sah]—portals or sacred gateways for healing through contemplative listening and ritual.”
The Philisa are a healing place and sacred space. Amira’s included a “purifying and protecting” salt ritual for visitors. I was stirred to pay homage to my ancestors with the ritual. I placed my hands in a carved bowl filled with sea salt. As I let the grains glide through my fingers, I imagined the grains of sand on Middle Passage beaches. It felt fitting that this portal was the passageway to the permanent African art collection. I can’t say that I felt “healed” exactly, but I did feel a sense of connection to my ancestors. I felt dialed into the people I never knew but who made it possible for me to be who I am today.
Two cloth banners suspended from the ceiling hung around me.The banners’ blood red text references a 1905 letter from a white psychologist who questions the humanness of the “Negro” in a letter to W.E.B. DuBois and poet Lucille Clifton’s artful response. I noticed the “reply” before I read the question it answered. But, I knew. I understood without being asked because I’ve answered it myself.
I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of museum patrons crowded in the Wiley exhibit were white. Given what we were all there to see, I must admit it felt awkward to experience the work alongside white people. Visions of Hurricane Katrina “disaster tourists,” packed into buses chugging through devastated Black neighborhoods after, flooded my mind. The commodification of Black tragedy by predominantly white gawkers in New Orleans felt close. It felt troubling to see them stop and stare. But, as I made my way through the exhibit, I started to see their presence as an opportunity.
Wiley’s work, much like my work as a journalist, is documentation. I liken it to when we ask, ‘Where were you during the moon landing?’ or ‘Do you remember where you were on 9/11?’ Where were YOU when another Black person was killed for the crime of existence…for walking home in a hoodie, for sleeping in their own bed? Where were YOU when police choked and beat and shot us? Better yet, what did you do after that? Did you post a black square on your Insta? Did you put a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard? Did you take to the streets in protest? Did you watch others chant in the streets on the news?
The world isn’t the same as it was three years ago, and—for better
or and worse—neither am I. I’ve healed (for the most part), but I may never be whole in the same way again. As for the world…? It looks pretty bleak most days. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I feel increasingly omnipresent threats to life as we know it. It’s more than climate change, a new war or an attempted coup on our democratic government or even a global pandemic that brought society to a screeching halt. I fear the growing pile of Black bodies and the oppressive systems that discarded them. But, more than that, I fear apathy.