Art is vital in times of trouble.
Art can’t overthrow an oppressive government, or feed the hungry, or rebuild ruins. Art can’t organize protests, or pay bail for someone unjustly imprisoned, or stop bullets from entering bodies.
In the midst of social injustice, there are many things that are needed in order to fix the situation, and art is rarely seen as one of those things. However, I believe that art is and has always been of the utmost importance in these times. Because art can’t respond to crisis in the same way that humans do doesn’t mean that art doesn’t aid in the most important way:
Art changes minds.
Thoughts precede action and art can challenge even the deepest, most rigid thoughts one has, causing an inner turmoil that if not changes one’s ideas, at least forces them to assess why they think that way. During this climax of the Black Lives Matter movement in mainstream media following the murder of George Floyd, I’ve been confronting what it means to be a person with privilege. I’ve been staying informed, voicing my solidarity with the black community and all people of color, and have been advocating for others to do the same. Uncomfortable conversations with family members and friends are the new normal and they have resulted in recognizing privilege, confronting racist tendencies and thought patterns, and resolving to continue doing so until there is change.
As uncomfortable and hard as it is, reflecting upon racism in one’s own mind and then working to change it is so essential. I wanted to share one of my favorite artists who promotes this cognitive dissonance with absolutely stunning works of art.
You may know American artist Kehinde Wiley from his presidential portrait of former United States president, Barack Obama. Wiley specializes in taking traditional works that depict white people in states of grandeur and replace these figures with modern black people. It forces viewers to re-examine what they associates with glory, wealth, and most importantly, race.
This painting, Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted (2016), is my personal favorite of Wiley’s. Upon first glance, this painting makes you do a double take. By the colors and layout of this piece, you would expect to see the Virgin Mary, perhaps holding the body of Jesus or holding a suffering person, surrounded by saints and other religious iconography. While this was present in the original stained glass window, such content is absent from this painting. Mary, a symbol in Christianity of comfort, is replaced with a black man in modern clothing holding a child. The gaze of this man almost transfixes the viewer into staring at this piece longer, contemplating how their perspective of this art changes as the figures embody people of color. Considering the title and also the body positions and facial expressions of the characters in this piece, we can see that every person in this image is afflicted.
The boy whom the man in the center is holding appears to be dead by the limpness of his neck and limbs and by the halo around his head which is usually used to identify martyrs or saints. It makes one wonder why he has died, and at the hands of whom. The man holding him bears a halo as well, and looking at his face reveals an internal anger and sadness at the loss of this child. It makes one wonder how this man is related to the child in his arms. There is a grief shared by all the figured in the painting; their gazes fall either inward towards this tragedy, or downward in disbelief and personal lament. Some have their hands to their faces in grief. There’s a yearning to know who these people are and why they are suffering, and though I’m sure they are modeled after specific people Wiley knows, they represent the black community as a whole — young, old, imprisoned, dead — all of these people are everywhere.
There are many instances of strong symbolism in this piece, including the Eye of Providence at the top of the painting, that appears to belong to a white person. This symbol represents the eye of God watching over humanity, showing not only how these people are God’s people, too, but also how the white man is free because he is “in” the eye, while the black man is not. There is a man wearing a feather headdress, which in the Sioux culture represents the bravery of the person wearing it. Each feather is supposed to represent an act of bravery and strength made by the person donning this special headdress, thus symbolizing how people of color have needed to be brave again and again in fighting for their rights. There is another man wearing shackles, which represents those unjustly imprisoned for the color of their skin and the oppression in general for an aspect of themselves they simply can not control. A woman in the bottom right corner is blindfolded. Lady Justice also wears a blindfold to represent impartiality, but this woman’s blindfold seems to represent her state as a victim.
The two in the center are dressed in completely modern clothing, including shorts, baseball caps, and sneakers, whereas the men and women surrounding them are dressed mostly in traditional robes seen in religious artwork of the past, but their hairstyles are modern. This combination of traditional and modern depiction results in a message that is timeless. This lamentation reflects the oppression and unjust discrimination against people of color even in today’s modern society.
Where Mary comes to bring peace to the afflicted in the original image, the man depicted here bears only more terrible news. It’s impact on me is beyond words, and I know I’m not the only one who has been touched and challenged by Kehinde Wiley’s artwork. I encourage you to look at other works by Wiley and to stay informed on ways we can be advocating for people of color. Art changes minds. All lives won’t matter until black lives do.