Kehinde Wiley: The Yellow Wallpaper

By William Morris Gallery

In 2020 the William Morris Gallery exhibited six portraits by Kehinde Wiley featuring women and girls that the artist met on the streets of Dalston, East London. The portraits offer a visual response to the Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s acclaimed feminist short story, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' and can be contextualized within the wider narrative of Wiley's portraits and paintings by European 'old masters'.

Portrait of Quanna Noble (2020) by Kehinde WileyWilliam Morris Gallery

Kehinde Wiley is an American portrait painter based in New York. In 2020 he exhibited six new works at the William Morris Gallery in 'The Yellow Wallpaper', his first solo exhibition of new works at a UK museum.

The exhibition was also Wiley's first to feature exclusively female portraits. All of the sitters were women and girls that the artist met on the streets of Dalston, east London.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935/Library of Congress (c1900) by Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952, photographerNational Women’s History Museum

The exhibition title references Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s acclaimed feminist text of the same name. The story is about a woman diagnosed with 'hysteria' and confined to her bedroom.

Wiley explained that the story ‘explores the contours of femininity and insanity.' His exhibitions seeks to 'use the language of the decorative to reconcile blackness, gender, and a beautiful and terrible past.’

Portrait of Melissa Thompson (2020) by Kehinde WileyWilliam Morris Gallery

Wiley's paintings depict women as autonomous, powerful and open to individual interpretation. Some of the poses he positions the sitters in reference painted portraits by European 'Old Masters'.

In this seated portrait of Melissa Thompson, the sitter's pose and hand gestures reference traditional paintings.

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836) (1817) by Jacques-Louis DavidHarvard Art Museums

Thompson's pose is similar to seated portraits by Neolassical artists such as this painting of Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès by Jacques-Louis David.

'Wild Tulip' wallpaper (designed 1884, printed before 1940) by William MorrisWilliam Morris Gallery

Wiley used Morris & Co. patterns as the background in each of these paintings, he has included them in many of his other works. This pattern is 'Wild Tulip' designed by William Morris in 1884.

Portrait of Savannah Essah (2020) by Kehinde WileyWilliam Morris Gallery

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.

'Honeysuckle' embroidery (designed 1876, made 1880s) by Jane MorrisWilliam Morris Gallery

For the background of the portrait Wiley has chosen William Morris's 'Honeysuckle' design. This example shows it as an embroidery worked by Jane Morris and her daughter Jenny. It was exhibited at the Louvre, Paris in 1914.

Portrait of Asia-Imani, Gabriella-Esnae, and Kaya Palmer (2020) by Kehinde WileyWilliam Morris Gallery

This group portrait shows Kaya Palmer with her daughters Asia-Imani and Gabriella-Esnae. In the painting Wiley presents a modern family using poses and techniques from traditional family portraiture.

Wiley asked Kaya and her daughters to model as he was drawn to her individual style as a proud young mother. The painting shows a contemporary view of motherhood and family.

'Compton' wallpaper (designed 1896, printed before 1940) by John Henry DearleWilliam Morris Gallery

The background for this painting is the 'Compton' pattern designed in 1896 by Morris & Co.'s Chief Designer John Henry Dearle. In Wiley's painting the flowers and stems overlap and entwine with the sitters.

Portrait of Mojisola Elufowoju (2020) by Kehinde WileyWilliam Morris Gallery

This portrait shows Mojisola Elufowoju looking directly at the viewer and holding a long spear or javelin.

Elufowoju stands in an assertive pose as the roses on the background climb up and around her. Women are often associated with roses in paintings, an image Wiley uses to challenge views of femininity.

Design for 'St. James' wallpaper (23rd July 1880) by William MorrisWilliam Morris Gallery

The background is the 'St James' pattern, the design for which can be seen here. This was one of Morris & Co.'s most expensive wallpapers and was personally approved by Queen Victoria for St James's Palace.

Portrait of Dorinda Essah (2020) by Kehinde WileyWilliam Morris Gallery

In this full-length portrait Dorinda Essah looks calm and confident as she looks out at the viewer, the flowers from the background overlapping with her clothing.

Essah also holds a spear or javelin in this image, a direct reference to traditional 'Old Master' portraits of European military figures or chancellors holding staffs of office.

Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?) (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum

A comparison can be made with this 'Portrait of a Halberdier' by the Italian portraitist Jacopo Pontormo. These types of portraits can be found on the walls of many European museums and art galleries.

'Blackthorn' wallpaper (designed 1892, printed before 1940) by John Henry DearleWilliam Morris Gallery

For the background Wiley has used the 'Blackthorn' wallpaper, another Morris & Co. design by John Henry Dearle. It was originally only available in this quite muted colourway.

Portrait of Quanna Noble (2020) by Kehinde WileyWilliam Morris Gallery

The final portrait in the series shows Quanna Noble with her hand on her hip wearing Adidas leggings and red Converse All Stars trainers.

Through placing these painted portraits of Black women on the walls of a museum, Wiley challenges traditional ideas of representation within British cultural institutions.

'Honeysuckle' wallpaper (designed 1883, printed before 1940) by May MorrisWilliam Morris Gallery

The background is 'Honeysuckle' a design by May Morris, William's younger daughter.

The following video provides a closer look at Wiley's process and links Gilmans's 'The Yellow Wallpaper'.

Kehinde Wiley. The Yellow Wallpaper- the making of the exhibition at the William Morris Gallery (2020) by Cousins: Jessica Chermeyoff, Ana Vaselic, and Anne AlexanderWilliam Morris Gallery

Credits: Story

Images of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' paintings courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery © Kehinde Wiley, 2020

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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