Kehinde Wiley exhibition making US premiere in San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the “Museums”) are honored to host the US premiere of Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence, a monumental new body of work created against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the worldwide rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Expanding upon American artist Kehinde Wiley’s “Down” series from 2008, An Archaeology of Silence meditates on the deaths of young Black people slain all over the world. The 26 works in this Kehinde Wiley exhibition stand as elegies and monuments, underscoring the fraught terms in which Black people are rendered visible, especially when at the hands of systemic violence.

“As part of the Museums intentional focus on exhibiting the work of groundbreaking Black artists, it is an immense privilege to host Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence at the de Young museum,” sThomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said. “Utilizing the historical visual language of the dying hero, Wiley’s portraits of Black youths render visible previously obscured victims and survivors of systemic violence. In the Bay Area–a place that has resisted violence against Black people, as evidenced in the Black Power movement and the current Black Lives Matter movement–Wiley’s work has deep resonances. They ask each of us, how are we implicated? And how do we take action?”

The artist’s 2008 Down series featured a group of large-scale portraits of young Black men inspired by Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521–1522). Holbein’s painting triggered an ongoing investigation into the iconography of death and sacrifice in Western art that Wiley traced across religious, mythological, and historical subjects. An Archaeology of Silence Kehinde Wiley exhibition reconceptualizes this research into paintings and sculptures that confront the legacies of colonialism through the visual language of the fallen figure.

The resulting paintings of Black people struck down, wounded, resting, or dead, all referencing historical paintings of heroes, martyrs, or saints, offer a haunting meditation on the violence against Black and Brown people through European art historical references.

“By inscribing Black people into known examples of Western painting and sculpture, Kehinde Wiley counters the historical erasure of people of color from the dominant cultural narratives,” Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said. “This new body of work forgoes the rhetorical tools of empire that have informed his portraiture thus far to shift the conversation toward a recognition of suffering and resilience that is both vulnerable and strong, elegiac and ecstatic, devastating and beautiful.”

Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence contains some of the largest paintings and sculptures Wiley has created to date, as well as some of the smallest. The series uses scale to elevate the people depicted to heroic status, generally absent from the depictions of the recumbent or fallen figure in Western art (including those that Wiley’s works have been based on). It marks an important departure in the artist’s work which, with the notable exception of Down, has been primarily concerned with verticality and elevation, projecting Black youth into positions of power and grace by painting them into compositions inspired by canonical Western portraits such as Anthony van Dyck’s Charles I at the Hunt (1636) or Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), among many others.

Created against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wiley had to forgo his usual practice of “street casting,” instead working with residents, staff, and friends of Black Rock, a residency program he established in 2019 in Dakar, Senegal, and where he spent most of his time during the international lockdown. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Wiley saw an opportunity to broaden the conversation beyond national concerns. The figures’ personal markers of Senegalese and West African culture, with regard to hair in particular, serve as a metaphor for the many places where systematically oppressed communities of Black and Brown people experiencing the same systemic violence around the world.

This Kehinde Wiley exhibition is part of the Museums’ Department of Contemporary Art and Programming. Presented in the de Young museum’s second-floor galleries, the exhibition centers contemporary conversations and explorations of the American identity, expanding on the narrative told in the adjacent galleries dedicated to the Museums’ historic American Art collection.

The Kehinde Wiley exhibition is made possible by a $1M grant from the Ford Foundation. In addition to providing exhibition support, this generous gift will enable the presentation of a series of public programming and interpretation interventions by community members who work in the areas of restorative justice and human rights, to inform the visitors’ experience in the exhibition. Led by the Museums’ new Director of Interpretation, Abram Jackson, Interpretation Partners will work with the museums to advise the didactic treatment for the exhibition including wall texts, audio guides, the hero film, digital and printed resources, and more.

“Kehinde Wiley’s visionary art sends an affirming and profound message by filling the void of Black representation in history and shining a light on the Black experience of today,” Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said. “His art has the power to ignite innovative ideas about culture and justice, helping us reconsider how we see ourselves and the world around us.”

Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence will be on view March 18–October 15, 2023,

Installation of "Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence."
Installation of “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence.” Kehinde Wiley, “An Archeology of Silence”, 2021 bronze overall, approximate: 161 7/16 x 59 1/16 x 200 13/16 in., 2 Ton 1,363.79 lb. (410 x 150 x 510 cm, 2,433 kg) Footprint: 48 13/16 x 135 7/16 in. (124 x 344 cm) base: 11 13/16 x 88 3/16 x 174 13/16 in. (30 x 224 x 444 cm). Horse body: 1 Ton 339.08 lb. (1,061 kg). Horse legs: 1 Ton 120.83 lb. (962 kg). Figure: 903.89 lb. (410 kg). ©️ 2022 Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of the artist and Templon, Paris – Brussels – New York. Photo: Ugo Carmeni.

About Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977, Los Angeles) is an American artist best known for his portraits that render people of color in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings. Wiley’s work brings art history face-to-face with contemporary culture, using the visual rhetoric of the heroic, the powerful, the majestic and the sublime to celebrate Black and brown people the artist has met throughout the world. Working in the mediums of painting, sculpture, and video, Wiley’s portraits challenge and reorient art-historical narratives, awakening complex issues that many would prefer remain muted.

In 2018 Wiley became the first African-American artist to paint an official U.S. Presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Former U.S. President Barack Obama selected Wiley for this honor. In 2019 Wiley founded Black Rock Senegal, a multidisciplinary artist-in-residence program that invites artists from around the world to live and create work in Dakar, Senegal.

Wiley is the recipient of the U.S. Department of State’s Medal of Arts, Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, and France’s distinction of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. He holds a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, an MFA from Yale University, and honorary doctorates from the Rhode Island School of Design and San Francisco Art Institute.

Respite Room 

Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence features paintings and sculptures that force viewers to confront their relationship to and complicity in systemic violence against Black people. Throughout the run of the exhibition, the museum’s Textile Arts gallery adjacent to the exhibition will be utilized as a space of respite with the primary aim of practicing care for visitors during and after their visit, particularly for visitors of color. 

Public Programming + Resource Library

The museum’s Piazzoni Murals Room (PMR) near Wilsey Court, will be used as library for visitors to reflect and access resources to learn more about the exhibition and its themes. Utilizing reflection tools such as anonymous comment cards, drawing materials, audio recordings, and books and magazines, PMR will offer visitors a space to work through the emotions Wiley’s complex imagery may conjure. Visitors will also have access to resources about the history of state-sanctioned violence against Black people in the United States, and resistance to systemic violence that persists in contemporary society, specifically in the history of the Bay Area.

The Museums are honored to collaborate with artist and professor Angela Hennessy, and poet, author, and public theologian Marvin K. White, on a series of workshops designed to center visitors processing both individual and collective grief. Paying homage to Black funerary practices, The Quiet Hours is a series of community undertakings and collective mournings. As grief and joy orbit each other we gather for meditation, writing, and ritual informed by An Archaeology of Silence. Dates and details to come.

Visiting \ de Young

Entry to Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence will be included in general admission to the de Young museum, with free admission for San Francisco Bay Area residents every Saturday, generously provided by Diane B. Wilsey.

The de Young Museum is open Tuesday–Sunday, 9:30 am – 5:15 pm. For more information, please visit

The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is an independent organization working to address inequality and build a future grounded in justice. For more than 85 years, it has supported visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Today, with an endowment of $16 billion, the foundation has headquarters in New York and 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

About Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Established in 2016, the Department of Contemporary Art and Programming (CAP), led by Claudia Schmuckli, has distinguished itself through an innovative and dynamic program of commissions, exhibitions, and interventions in dialogue with the Fine Arts Museums’ historical sites, architecture, and collections. As the only department not delineated by either medium or geography, CAP exhibits and collects works in all media and across geographies that incite dialogues, embrace a multiplicity of perspectives, and shed new light on both the past and the present. Reflecting a commitment to fostering an inclusive, diverse, and forward-looking dialogue, CAP highlights pressing societal issues and concerns through its programs and acquisitions.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young museum, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park and was established as the Memorial Museum in 1895. It was later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

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