Kehinde Wiley, star of the American art scene and Barack Obama’s official portrait artist, is back in Paris. For his first Parisian exhibition since the 2016 show at Petit Palais, he will be unveiling a new series of paintings and a video-installation based on his time spent this past year in Tahiti.
Wiley’s new works are focused on Tahiti’s Māhū community, the traditional Polynesian classification of people of a third gender, between male and female. The Māhū were highly respected within their society until they were banned by Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Wiley's portraits of beautiful, transgender Tahitian women reference and confront Paul Gauguin's celebrated works, which also feature subjects from the transgender community, but are fraught with historical undertones of colonialism and sexual objectification. Building off of Wiley's earlier portraits that addressed issues of masculine identity and virility, these new portraits explore issues of identity through the lens of transformation, exploring both artifice and artificiality as a trans-cultural phenomenon.
Over the past fifteen years, Wiley has developed a remarkable body of work that at once questions and participates in the western art-historical canon of portraiture. Wiley’s encounter with Tahiti joins with the artist’s continued journey across the contemporary world, following his explorations of North America, South Asia, and West Africa. Wiley’s focus on Tahiti now offers the opportunity to re-examine France, its colonial history, and its image through the prism of Gauguin’s work. True to his oeuvre, this exhibition presents a uniquely political and aesthetic perspective on the power of art to shift perception and to make visible history’s forgotten figures.