Kehinde Wiley creates contemporary portraits in the style of art-historical masters, repopulating them with people of color. Six new works on stained glass, made in collaboration with Czech artisans, were on view at the Petit Palais in Paris last fall – a first for a living African American male artist. Each window portrays an adult with a child, but Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted II is one of the most complex. A classical tableaux of allegorical figures surround a young black man in T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, who stands in for Mary, mother of Jesus.
The piece expands the notion of who is rightly considered afflicted. It shows a lame man and a blind woman – typical characters seeking help from a divine figure in religious iconography – but adds a Native American, a person who may be Muslim, and a prisoner in shackles.
“My desire to cross temporal boundaries and fuse contemporary urban street [culture] with the Western art historical canon has fertilized my work for many years,” Wiley says. The dress and gender of the main figure, plus the inclusion of these other supplicants, points to the multiethnic, multicultural urban societies he draws inspiration from.
Yet the aggrieved expression on the face of “Mary” as he holds a dead child indicates that, in this modern version of heavenly grace, there is no promise of intervention; there is only the small solace of recognition.