This painting is one in series of portraits by Kehinde Wiley that offer a visual response to the Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s acclaimed feminist short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). Wiley’s new portraits feature women and girls that the artist met on the streets of Dalston, east London.
In this portrait of Savannah Essah the sitter looks directly out at the viewer. Her stance is confident and defiant with her left hand resting on her hip. Savannah's hand gesture also references similar gestures in historic painted portraits. Her thumb and forefinger touch to form a ring, a symbol of perfection seen in Ancient Greek, Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.
Gilman’s semi-autobiographical tale sees her narrator confined to her bedroom after being diagnosed with hysteria, her mental anguish exacerbated by the room’s hideous yellow wallpaper. Embodying a myriad of positions with regards to social class, status, religion, colonialism and the negotiation of gender, the women in Wiley’s portraits are pictured within reimagined fields inspired by William Morris’s patterned wallpaper.
Against this background, Wiley depicts these women as autonomous, powerful and open to individual interpretation. In this way the portraits offer a rubric through which to engage with the beautiful and terrible histories and traditions that his subjects are heir to.