The young man is, literally and figuratively, a work of art.
His shining brown head reflects the glow of a golden halo set behind his white hoodie and leather-accented puffer vest, confident in casually-tied Converse. His hands are clasped in front of him and his bright face is set in a look of … tranquility? Wisdom? Pride? Maybe all three. He could be an older version of my kid, or the kids who pass our stoop on their way to the high school down the street.
He is both ordinary and extraordinary, everyday and divine. And that is the point.
“Saint Amelie,” a remarkable stained glass piece by heralded artist Kehinde Wiley, is the newest featured work at the Walters Art Museum. It’s one of a series of 12 such windows featuring cool young Black Brooklynites that reference a much older religious work ― in this case a stained glass window of the same name by French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
In this piece, however, the subject is not a blonde female saint but Kern Alexander, a modern African American man and frequent Wiley subject. Christine Sciacca, the Walters’ curator for European Art, 300-1400 CE, noted that Wiley renders Alexander in the vibrant green, yellow and red of the Ethiopian flag, definitively placing him in a Black space while referencing the image’s origins.
“Saint Amelie,” which was acquired by the museum in 2022 but will now be displayed permanently, follows in the tradition of the California-born artist’s practice — as he did with his warm, nature-centered official portrait of former President Barack Obama — of portraying Black people in the spirit of the Old Masters. Obama faces the viewer with a serious expression while seemingly floating, almost otherworldly, against a leaf-covered background. There is whimsy amid the gravitas. He, like Wiley’s other subjects, is cast in a loving light, worthy of attention, carried not in tragedy but in triumph.
“By bringing this work, we are creating unique conversations that bridge time and place,” said Walters executive director and CEO Julia Marciari-Alexander. Those conversations, in part, concern who is worthy to be heralded and who is not.
Wiley’s work reminds me of Annapolis’ Tawny Chatmon, who surrounds her young Black subjects in glittering gold, reminiscent of masters like Gustav Klimt. It’s sad that it was so startling to see these beautiful children, in shades from tan to ebony, presented reverently, almost like royalty, because our kids seldom are. There should not be an asterisk on the innocence and specialness of our precious offspring, but there is, and they know it. It’s heartbreaking and it makes me so damn angry.
Chatmon, recently featured in the Walters’ “Activating The Renaissance” exhibition, told me in an interview last year that unlike some classic paintings in which Black people were portrayed as slaves or servants, she wanted her subjects “to see themselves as beautiful, not background. It only makes sense that they would see themselves in a celebratory way.”
And that’s what Wiley’s work, including his stained glass series, does. The Walters, Marciari-Alexander said, has made a point of featuring pieces where the Black characters are celebrated, front and center, like in German painter William Stetter’s “Adoration of The Kings” (1526). Displayed across the room from “Saint Amelie,” it depicts the three kings that visited the newly-born Christ child, with the dark-skinned African ruler dressed richly and distinguished.
Marciari-Alexander said that “Saint Amelie” was specifically placed near pieces that it complements, like Stetter’s painting, or a 1450s altarpiece from Spain — all depicting sainted people, front and center. It’s also near “Senait and Nahom,” a striking new light installation by Tsedaye Makonnen that’s named for an Eritrean mother and son who tragically died in a European detention center, shining light on a dark situation.
But ultimately, Wiley’s modern saint sits apart on its own wall because “it needed to be on its own, in this moment,” Marciari-Alexander said. “We felt like this work was perfect for us.”
I agree. It’s a statement that my child, his friends and others who look like them, who never see themselves in the sacred, can find meaning in. They are special. They are worthy of celebration.
We all are, aren’t we?