Cuba and the Carnivalesque Take Center Stage in Kehinde Wiley’s New Portrait Series ‘HAVANA’
Amidst his signature verdant backdrops, Kehinde Wiley (previously) situates his subjects in the center of the composition, chins tilted up with regal gazes, enveloped in the grandeur of colorful patterns. The artist is known for monumental portraits in oil that reframe European painting traditions, especially referencing court portraiture in which royal or noble families—almost exclusively white—were portrayed in extravagant dress symbolizing wealth and power. Wiley flips the narrative by positioning historically marginalized Black and Brown figures front and center.
Wiley’s latest body of work titled HAVANA, on view now at Sean Kelly in New York, continues the artist’s interest in the cultures and traditions of the African diaspora. He draws on two separate visits to Cuba, first in 2015 and again in 2022, exploring the carnivalesque phenomenon in Western culture, which manifests in numerous colorful, celebratory events around the world, such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Wearing layers of vivid fabric and carrying juggling sticks or instruments, Wiley captures the individuality and creative focus of each person. He says:
The performers are each different—there’s so many different points of view, so many different life experiences, but one thing that unites them all is the very sense that America dominates the economic fortune of Cuba. The relationship between America and Cuba is one that has been fraught with a fascination, a suspicion, an intrigue, and a cultural weight.
Wiley references notable artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, and Alexander Calder, who around the turn of the 20th century explored similar themes. Through portraits of acrobats, dancers, and musicians, Wiley examines the political history, economic hardship, and thirst for artistic freedom in Cuba, focusing on circuses and carnivals as sites of celebration, disruption, and self-expression.
On his first visit to Cuba, Wiley stopped by the Escuela Nacional de Circo, or the National Circus School, to learn about the history of the medium in the country and its national circus, Circuba. Prior to the Cuban Revolution, the nation was home to numerous family-run companies, but today, there is only one. During his second visit, he met with members of Raices Profundas, a group regarded as one of the world’s most authentic performing ensembles in the Yoruba tradition.
Like in many parts of the world, numerous cultural histories intersect in Cuba due to the period of European colonization, which resulted in the forced migration of Indigenous populations and centuries of enslavement of African peoples. Over time, circuses and elaborate street parties became “opportunities for the formerly enslaved to engage in moments of freedom and grace that were generally forbidden,” reads an exhibition statement. “The carnival, Mardi Gras, and street processions were events in which chaos could arise, love could be expressed, and a spiritual embrace of religious traditions could be manifest.”
HAVANA continues at Sean Kelly through June 17, which includes a three-channel film featuring some of the performers. See more from the artist on his website or Instagram, and you might also want to check out Big Chief Demond Melancon’s elaborately beaded Mardi Gras costumes.
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Theatrically Composed Scenes Highlight Human’s Impact on Earth
Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison have been a collaborative duo for the last 20 years, mixing Shana’s interest in dance with Robert’s background in photography to produce environments specifically for their combined practice. A constant theme throughout the couple’s two decade long work has been man’s effect on the landscape—showcasing how we are constantly influencing, and more often than not damaging, the Earth.
“We create works in response to the ever-bleakening relationship linking humans, technology, and nature,” says the ParkeHarrison’s artist statement. “These works feature an ambiguous narrative that offers insight into the dilemma posed by science and technology’s failed promise to fix our problems, provide explanations, and furnish certainty pertaining to the human condition. Strange scenes of hybridizing forces, swarming elements, and bleeding overabundance portray Nature unleashed by technology and the human hand.”
Recently the work has reflected the pair’s love of theater and performance, with pieces such as Intermission (2015) and Soliloquy (2015) showcasing stages large and small set inside larger post-apocalyptic scenes. In Riverview (2015) the subject holds a tapestry in front of a rundown carnival, an image of a beautiful river masking what may have paved over its former place. In First of May (2015) the subject listens closely to two megaphones in a hazy field, perhaps searching for wisdom from nature rather than man.
The ParkeHarrison’s exhibition Precipice opens March 11 at Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago and runs through April 30, 2016. You can see more of the couple’s work on the gallery’s website.
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Amazing Craft Documentary
Man Spends 40 Years Building Giant Kinetic Carnival Rides to Advertise Family Restaurant in Italy
On June 15, 1969 in Battaglia, Italy a man named Bruno bought a few jugs of wine, some sausages and a few other items and set up a tiny food stand underneath a tree to see if anyone would show up. By the end of the day he had sold almost everything and the family restaurant, Ai Pioppi, was born. The next month he had a chance encounter with a blacksmith who didn’t have time to make a few hooks for some chains. Bruno decided he would learn to weld himself and enjoyed it so much he began to dream up small rides he could build to entice new customers to Ai Pioppi. It turned out to be brilliantly successful.
Now forty years later, the forest around the restaurant is packed with swings, multi-story slides, seesaws, gyroscopes, tilt-a-whirls, and bizarre kinetic roller-coasters for adults and children. In this artfully filmed 10-minute documentary by a team over at Fabrica, we get the chance to meet Bruno, see many of his rides in action, and learn a bit about his philosophy on existence and death.
For this post I also included a few photos courtesy Oriol Ferrer Mesià who visited Ai Pioppi in 2011 with several friends. You can see many more shots here and here.
The next time I’m in Italy I think this is at the top of my list.
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Editor's Picks: Animation
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.