Portrait of Mahogany Jones and Marcus Stokes, by Kehinde Wiley
JR: You have selected a painting, “Portrait of Mahogany Jones and Marcus Stokes”, by Kehinde Wiley. Wiley is perhaps best known for his recent portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. What draws you to this particular Wiley portrait?
SW: I chose this particular piece by Wiley because of who is represented in the painting. This painting was a part of a group of paintings Wiley did of subjects from the St. Louis and Ferguson area. I am from St. Louis and though I do not know the subjects of the piece personally, knowing they are from my home town makes the piece a bit more special. What draws me to this piece the most is that it represents two black men almost embracing surrounded by flowers. In most modern paintings you rarely see black men showing intimacy, like hugging or hand holding, and Wiley’s piece shows two black men surrounded by very pink and colorful flowers. Flowers often represent femininity and delicacy in paintings, but the way that Wiley represents the two men embracing surrounded by flowers is in a very empowered way. The two subjects of the piece look proud and confident to be embracing each other and are represented as two strong black men who are not afraid of even basic levels of intimacy or care for one another.
JR: What is the connection, for you, between unabashed expression of intimacy and care between two persons and beauty?
SW: What I find beautiful is the vulnerability of the two and that they are showing intimacy with each other in such a large-scale painting. (It is common to be) told that intimacy is a sign of weakness and that men and boys oughtn’t cry and have to be tough. My mom taught a 15-year-old who came from a very low-income family in Baltimore city and he thought he was gay because his family told him that showing emotion makes you gay and he felt emotional at times. What makes the painting beautiful is that the subjects are showing a more vulnerable side of themselves through their embracing. Wiley paints black subjects to appear powerful and in this painting is representing something as beautiful as the vulnerability of two black men embracing.
JR: I’m wondering if you are associating something like truth, or honesty, or authenticity with beauty. If I’m understanding you, the vulnerability is to some kind of backlash or stigma for failing to conform to a norm of “distant, steely toughness” and the “powerful appearance” of the subjects is owing to their flouting that norm in a public display of intimacy. Am I right in reading this into your answer? What do you think about the conceptual connection between truth and beauty?
SW: Your interpretation is correct, the vulnerability of showing intimacy is from not conforming to the norms of how one should act. What is beautiful is that they are being truthful and honest in who they are by showing intimacy with one another. The truth is everyone needs some kind of human connection, and this piece is beautiful because it shows true human connectedness and therefore truthfulness of two individuals. They are showing a more vulnerable side to who they really are as humans by expressing intimacy in such a large-scale painting. There is something beautiful in the “realness” or authenticity of the two showing how they care for each other with physical affection.
JR: I feel rather confident that I understand what it is about this painting that draws you to it and in virtue of which you find it to be beautiful. Now I want to ask you one final set of questions about that first personal experience of “being drawn” or “what it is like”. Can you describe your reaction to the painting as you view it and consider it? What goes through your mind in terms of articulable thoughts and what sorts of feelings do you experience? How does it impact you?
SW: When I first saw this piece I was taken aback by the scale of it. It is very large and very colorful and detailed. I noticed first the flowers in the piece because of how strongly they are represented, with their bright colors and large scale. I thought the flowers were the most beautiful at first but then I noticed the figures of the piece. They looked very powerful and in charge amongst the flowers. When viewing it it just looks beautiful because of its colors, but when you stare at it longer you sort of get lost in the piece and how the two men are incorporated in with the colorful flowers. Because the two men are presented so powerfully it makes you feel like you are observing some kind of royalty and not just everyday people. Wiley represents these people very well by making them look like extremely powerful and important people even if they are just everyday people you would see at the supermarket.