Portraying Power and Identity: A Global Perspective explores the range and complexity of human experience, revealing intersections between contemporary portraiture and depictions of power—social, cultural, and political. Individual and group identity, and the forces that shape how we see self and other, are approached through direct references to noted works from art history, connecting past events to current issues. From Nandipha Mntambo’s cowhide busts that echo the classical Winged Victory of Samothrace (200-190 BCE); to Carlos Aires’s gold-leafed altarpiece that offers a critique of both religious and political institutions; to Marco Veronese’s appropriation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490), these artists quote from the canon of art history to examine the contemporary human condition.
As one of the oldest art-historical genres, portraiture has always been political: the faces of the wealthy and powerful are enshrined in art museums and textbooks. Responding to this history, Kehinde Wiley has dedicated his practice to creating monumental portraits of African-American men and women that mimic the poses and gestures of European and Old Master paintings, emphasizing the historical uses of portraits as affirmations of status. Large-scale, highly detailed, and dramatically lit, Pierre Gonnord’s portraits of people from ethnically, economically, or socially marginalized communities, present visions of unexpected beauty and dignity. Zanele Muholi’s ongoing series Faces and Phases—photographs that portray strong, unique identities of individuals within the South African LGBTQI community—are part of her mission to “re-write black queer and trans visual history of South Africa, for the world to know our resistance and existence.”
For Anthony Goicolea, Christian Schoeler, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Elena Dorfman, portraiture remains a platform for exploring the construction of identity, as well as the internal and external forces that shape and shift notions of self and other. Resembling a photographic negative, Goicolea’s Portrait in Negative of a Boy with Harmonica as Madame Gautreau pays homage to John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X (1884 CE), though the image gives few clues to the young man’s identity. Christian Schoeler’s paintings of friends and acquaintances accentuate human vulnerability by capturing the essence of a person in moments of introspection, while Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s figurative paintings are not portraits but rather “suggestions of people,” woven from memories, photographs, literature, and her impressions of passersby. Such ambiguity is echoed in Elena Dorfman’s photographs of cosplayers, capturing young adults and teens dressed as characters from video games, animated films, and Japanese graphic novels.
The traditional genres of art history are evolving and intersecting, addressing a wide range of subject matter. From the complexities of the formation of identity, to the political, social, and economic forces shaping the world today, contemporary art is fluid. The works in this exhibition suggest a cyclical, rather than linear perspective on the most powerful of forces, the passage of time.