Tahiti is the inspiration for Barack Obama’s official portrait artist Kehinde Wiley in his latest exhibition in Paris.
The show, at Petit Palais (that’s not so Little Palace, to you), will feature a new series of paintings and a video-installation based on his time spent this past year in Tahiti.
Tahiti’s Māhū community
Kehinde’s new works focus 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.
Reference and confront Gauguin
The 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.
Kehinde’s earlier portraits 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.
Transformation and artifice
“I am interested in transformation and artifice,” Kehinde Wiley told ArtsCulture.
“My newest exhibition will engage with the history of France and its outward facing relationship to black and brown bodies, specifically relating to sexual proclivity.
“Gauguin features heavily in the imagination of France and her global interface – with that comes an entire history of complicated gazing. I interrogate, subsume, and participate in discourse about Māhū, about France, and about the invention of gender.”
Canon of portraiture
Over the past 15 years, Kehinde has developed a remarkable body of work that at once questions and participates in the western art-historical canon of portraiture. Kehinde’s encounter with Tahiti joins with the artists continued journey across the contemporary world, following his explorations of North America, South Asia, and West Africa.
Re-examine colonial history
Kehinde’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.
Tahiti – Kehinde Wiley, is at Petit Palais, from 18 May – 20 July 2019
top image: Kehinde Wiley on location filming in Tahiti