Review: “Kehinde Wiley An Archaeology of Silence” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

by Niki Golban July 2, 2024

Note from longtime Glasstire contributor, Betsy Huete: As part of an initiative to inspire competition and rigor in arts writing in education, one of my students’ written pieces will be featured on Glasstire each year. For last year’s installment, please go here.

Image of a black girl seated in a semi-reclining pose surrounded by a backdrop of flowers

Kehinde Wiley, “The Death of Hyacinth (Ndey Buri Mboup),” 2022, oil on canvas, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Templon © 2022 Kehinde Wiley

Looking around the gallery, one cannot help but wonder what inspired the eerie scene that sits before them. However, if you have followed Kehinde Wiley and his career, this sense of déjà vu should come as no surprise. That is because An Archaeology of Silence — recently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — is a continuation of some of his previous work, the Down series, and the connection between them is palpable. An Archaeology of Silence further explores the themes and messages that he wanted to convey. The exhibition does an excellent job of conveying the violence, pain, and suffering that Black people have faced throughout history, as well as their survival and resilience. 

Kehinde Wiley is an American artist who is well known for depicting Black people in his art, as well as for painting the presidential portrait of Barack Obama. An Archaeology of Silence, like Down, seeks to portray Black men in a positive light. Wiley expands on this in the exhibition, while also portraying the challenges Black people face and their constant struggle to overcome them, while specifically focusing on the injustices they have faced through systematic oppression. This exhibition was created as a response to the murder of George Floyd, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The Death of Hyacinth (2022) is one of the more memorable pieces in the exhibition. It stands out due to its vitality and bright hues, portraying a vibrant young woman lying on the ground with a racket and tennis balls nearby. In the original story, Hyacinth was killed while playing discus, and Wiley wanted to invoke this idea of death with the young woman in the painting. Unlike Hyacinth, though, Wiley’s woman is still alive and still fighting. Morpheus (2022) gives off a different feeling; it’s sleepy and calm, lulling you into a false sense of safety. It makes you want to relax, take a little rest, and be at peace. But the world often makes you feel comfortable, only to strike when you let your guard down. 

The Wounded Achilles (2022) shows a young man shot with an arrow in his heel, in the same method that killed Achilles. This painting has a heroic sense about it, with lavender flowers and exuberant light. In the legend, Achilles was a great warrior, the son of a goddess, but he was mortal, and susceptible to death just like the rest of us. Achilles knew of his fate, yet he still chose to fight and inscribe his name in history. In much the same way, Wiley’s Achilles has confronted his destiny. He has a solemn look on his face, as if he knows he is going to die, and is now looking at you, the viewer, to see if this injustice shall go unpunished. 

While beautiful, The Death of Hyacinth is not perfect. Its floral background can read as redundant and artificial. The woman does not seem to be actively struggling against anything; she just seems to be lying there with no immediate threat. In Morpheus, the position of the resting woman looks unnatural. The object the woman is lying upon is vague and nonspecific, like sheets bunched together. The painting does not create a sense of immediate danger. It also doesn’t show any real growth. There is no problem to overcome, nothing she must fight against to preserve her life.

 

Niki Golban is an eighth grader at Tanglewood Elementary in Houston and a student of Glasstire contributor, artist, and educator Betsy Huete. 

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1 comment

Colette Copeland July 7, 2024 - 17:24

Niki,
I really enjoyed your insightful writing on Wiley’s work. You did a great job of unpacking the layered historical context within the work and how it relates to both historical and contemporary culture. Bravo and keep writing! We need more young writers who enjoy writing critically about art.

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