The Case Studies explore HOW VISUAL LANGUAGE WORKS and they are for business owners and content marketers who want to change culture with their work. Because change happens not only through words and action, but through images - and if you aren't using them to communicate, you (and we) are missing out, comrade!
These are not art reviews or academic treatises: they are meant to break down concepts of visual language into one or two nuggets you can think about and apply to your own business, whether that's changing how you use your Instagram feed, creating a new blog post image or redesigning your web site.
ALEXANDER 1, EMPEROR OF RUSSIA by Kehinde Wiley
Before I start case-studying this one, take a few minutes for yourself to just look at this image. In what ways does this differ from other mass-culture images you have seen of women? Of black women? Notice what parts of the image you are drawn into, or repelled by. Interested in, surprised by.
A bit about the artist and the painting:
Kehinde Wiley is an American artist who works in the tradition of European Portrait painting. In other words he uses that visual vocabulary (everything from color and pattern to scale, composition and perspective), and all that it communicates - wealth, power, prestige, glorification and history (in a context of colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy). But he applies it to subjects that reflect the contemporary experience of African-heritage people around the globe. Almost all of his images are of black men and explore both the dominant stories of white European culture, and the multiple stories and realities of black lives, masculinities and cultures worldwide. He has recently begun exploring images of black women as well.
The subject of this painting is a teenage girl from Jamaica; she is not a model but a person he met in the street and invited to pose, and she chose the pose she wanted from a book of 18th century paintings (Hence the painting's title). His subjects always have a say in their own representation; they wear their own clothes and their own facial expressions.
I have 3 lessons/prompts for you to take away from Wiley's work as you seek to find your own powerful, culturally-disruptive or culture-making images for your work.
- the power of the mashup, and disruptive appropriation
- the magical meanings of pattern
- seduction and beauty in the service of revolution
Today we are dealing with #1; you'll have to stay tuned for part 2 and 3!
The power of the mashup
You could say Wiley is a mashup artist. He holds the history of the European portrait painting tradition (and the story it tells) in one hand, and the realities of black lives around the world (and the stories they tell) in the other, and he crashes them together. And that's what I want to talk about with you today: what happens when you place imagery from two distinct and seemingly separate realities together in one image. Something breaks; a rift is made in the illusion of a world view through time and space. Disruption, people! A chance to experience the world, in that moment of the image, as more layered, more complex, than we usually feel like it is or than it is ever presented in our visual culture. Its an opening for new perspectives, new empathy, new understanding, or even just a new feeling to emerge.
Wiley uses appropriation of an old and exclusive tradition and disorients it! This pattern is taken from British wallpapers of the 1800s, when the slave trade was in full bloom. The woman and the pattern together create an image that stands apart from time and place. They are in a nebulous cultural space together. It triggers flickers of awareness: that the slave trade was happening as these beautiful patterns adorned the walls of the white wealthy. That the sense of legacy and unbroken history visible in the European paintings was not available to African families torn apart by the slave trade. The experience of history is different for each group yet simultaneous. The pattern lifts away from itself and passes in front of her; it is not fixed, not stable. The patterns and styles and textures of her own clothing are from yet another time and place. They have their own culturally-, economically-, and gender-encoded meanings too, that trigger flickers of awareness: the prevalence of American fashion trends exported all over the globe, a facet of modern day imperialism.
I could go on (we haven't even started talking about the mashup of her self-determination and the pose of a Russian King), and now that you're getting in the groove, you probably could too. So...
PROMPT #1: MASH IT UP
- In your work, what are the cultural norms and social realities that you seek to change? Write them down.
- Can you think of visual imagery that communicates those social norms and realities? For example, if you are seeking to disrupt sexism in images of women in mass media, you might think of glossy magazine images of women, advertisements, movie posters, images on products marketed towards women, etc. Go ahead, think of the ones that most embody what you are trying to disrupt.
- Now ask: What are the new cultural norms and social realities that you propose in your work? Write your answer(s) down.
- Brainstorm every type of image you can think of that might communicate that reality. Let your images be literal (like a woman proud of her body, however it may defy the oppressive norms), and totally not (like goo. Volcanoes. a skinned knee.) This can include art you have seen, photographs, films, etc. Keep thinking and writing until you have a long list of options.
- Now: start looking for combinations. What can you combine to make your own rift in the veil of illusion?
Come discuss over at the Tactical Imagination Club Facebook group!