At the centre of An Archaeology of Silence, the American painter Kehinde Wiley’s exhibit at the 2022 Venice Biennale, hung a contradictory object: a gigantic image of perfection dedicated to an anti-racist, anti-capitalist resistance movement and owned by the world’s largest luxury brand. Femme Piquée Par Un Serpent (Mamadou Gueye) (2022), is an oil portrait nearly eight metres wide and three metres tall. It is a vast painting, on the scale of a wayside billboard (not an innocent comparison). It shows a beautiful young man reclining—or should that be sprawled?—on a nondescript patch of ground. Gueye’s legs are twisted, his back arched across a rock. His clothes have crumpled up. You can see his stomach and the waistband of his underpants touchingly exposed. But his face, lit strongly from the right, shows repose. He is either dead or asleep, it is hard to say which—the painting offers both as possibilities. The pose looks too uncomfortable for sleep. Then again, his body is lithe, youthful, and unmarked, shining like armour. It has none of the marks of trauma or illness that might have sent its bearer sprawling to the ground. There is not one speck of dirt on his clothes.

Wiley’s paintings are typically discussed in terms of historical atonement. He combines the hyperreal depiction of Black figures with art historical citation and a rhetoric of inclusion that promises to ‘redress historical absence and marginalization’ as Christine Riding, curator at the National Gallery, put it on the occasion of The Prelude, Wiley’s 2021 exhibition.footnote1 Mamadou Gueye addresses itself to various famous artworks. The referent here is not only the Femme piquée par un serpent (1847) invoked by Wiley’s title—a notorious sculpture by Auguste Clésinger in which the snakebite signalled by a tiny decorative serpent twined around the naked model’s wrist like a bracelet does nothing to defuse the vital erotic charge of her convulsive posture. There is a sexual charge to Wiley’s painting, but it is rooted in details of colour and texture rather than any sense of bodily animation. More relevant to Gueye’s repose are those 18th- and 19th-century paintings of martyred heroes in which the tragic glory of a heroic death is singled out by the suspension of death’s usual signs. Think of the nude drummer boy in Jacques-Louis David’s La Mort du Jeune Bara (1794) who crawls along the floor, his body unmarked, his cheeks still flushed; or of the crowd of comrades who flock to catch John Singleton Copley’s Major Peirson (1783), lifting his body clear of the floor. Copley’s major is clean and beautiful. Only a tiny spot of blood marks his garments. Behind such heroic representations was Homer’s Iliad: the moment in Book 24 when the gods intervene to keep Hector’s body intact in spite of the violence done to it by Achilles. Alexander Pope’s translationfootnote2 shows the sentimental weight the lines were given by the 18th century:

While foul in dust the unhonoured carcass lies,
But not deserted by the pitying skies:
For Phoebus watched it with superior care,
Preserved from gaping wounds and tainting air.

Mamadou Gueye is another Hector, another martyred hero. The space between Wiley’s picture plane and the background of floral wallpaper is a vacuum chamber. Gueye too will never taint. And yet no matter how assiduous the painter might be in his citation of historical precedent, Gueye’s recumbent form no more speaks the language of 18th-century martyrdom than Pope’s rhyming couplets speak that of epic Greece. Nor is it really intended to. In spite of all the curatorial puff lavished on Wiley that celebrates his citations of canonical artworks as ‘redressing absence’ or ‘eradicat[ing] feelings of . . . exclusion’, Femme Piquée is much more concerned with the present than the past.footnote3 Major Peirson and Bara the drummer boy were both killed in wars of national and popular struggle, of revolution and counter-revolution. Mamadou Gueye, by contrast, isn’t really dead. He is a friend of Wiley’s from Senegal who posed for the painting (or rather for the photograph on which the painting was based) during the coronavirus pandemic. And if he takes up the posture of martyrdom here it is because Wiley made An Archaeology of Silence in response to Black Lives Matter and the 2020 George Floyd protests. It is to American police violence and its echoes around the world that the painting is addressed. Gueye’s uncertain position between death and life can only be understood in terms of the heightened Black vulnerability revealed by such violence: what Saidiya Hartman calls ‘the afterlife of slavery’ and the ‘skewed life chances’ that are its result.footnote4

Wiley is part of a generation of Black figurative painters who matured before blm but have found a new visibility in the decade since the murder of Trayvon Martin. Like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu and Kerry James Marshall, he has seen his work taken up and promoted at the same time as it is asked to speak to new political requirements. This is a multi-faceted process. In Yiadom-Boakye’s work, for instance, it is the refusal of the signs of contemporary politics that marks out the fantasy space inhabited by her Black figures. Politics registers on her canvases, but in the negative (perhaps this detachment accounts for the astronomical prices her work reaches at auction, far exceeding Wiley’s).footnote5 Mamadou Gueye is not so absolute. The painting is a reorientation rather than a reinvention. It responds to blm by reprising themes and motifs Wiley has been exploring for twenty years—Black masculinity, queer beauty, camp, kitsch, the cribbing of iconography from Old Master paintings, the lush, obsessive rendering of branded commodities, from basketball trainers to William Morris wallpaper. Kitsch is the key term here. It is Wiley’s lodestar: both the cultural expression of commodification and the vehicle by which his paintings weave together the various traditions to which they are indebted. His use of kitsch follows painters and photographers of the 1970s and 1980s. An early work like Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) already sits somewhere between the racial pastiche of Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975) and the saturated portrait photography of the French duo Pierre et Gilles. Colescott painted out of the conjunction of blackness and commodification. His racially stereotyped figures and luridly coloured impasto surfaces—‘textures good enough to eat’, as Peter Schjeldahl put it—resuscitated history painting, but in a manner that made visual pleasure as sickening as the past it conjured up.footnote6 In a portrait by Pierre et Gilles such as Saint Sébastien (1987) or Le Jeune Pharaon (1985), it is the conjunction of visual and sexual pleasure achieved in popular culture and advertising that forms the basis for the staging of queer sexuality. Wiley’s Napoleon puts both traditions in play: both the genealogy of ambivalent queer delight in the commodity, from Warhol to Sontag to Pierre et Gilles, and the fraught history of Black commodification, from slavery’s production of ‘human commodities’ to the reappropriations of Colescott.

This is the unstable synthesis at work in Mamadou Gueye. It is Wiley’s third painting of a Black man titled after Clésinger’s sculpture. In earlier versions from 2008 and 2010 he hewed closer to his archetype, posing his models on white sheets strewn with flowers, their bodies contorted, eyes open—locked on the viewer’s. In these paintings Clésinger’s erotic charge is repeated all the way down to details of posture and setting, only to be enhanced by that typical feature of a Wiley painting: the acid heat of hyperreal surface, from the vivid green of a polyester jacket to the fluff of a man’s goatee or the sheen of his skin. In Mamadou Gueye, the shimmer and dazzle of synthetic colour overwhelms even more of the image than in previous versions. Only see how the livid sunburst of Gueye’s shirt and hoodie spreads as far as the nail of his left index finger and the highlights of his underpants. Colour has an active force in the painting. Clésinger’s snake is nowhere to be seen; but the drawstring of Gueye’s hoodie slithers across the rock by his head like a gaudy orange viper.

What does this ostentation add up to? Wiley describes his subject in An Archaeology of Silence as ‘the spectre of police violence and state control over the bodies of young black and brown people all over the world’.footnote7 Doubtless this ghost is present. But there are others, carried over from his earlier work. The uncanny vibrancy of Gueye’s attire, his spotless Nike trainers and Louis Vuitton monogrammed shirt (in which the creases from the box are still visible), announces one of these: consumer capitalism. Drenched in colour, draped across a beautiful young body, the logos of the world’s two most valuable clothing brands recall the demands of the market and the manipulations of advertising. The painting does look like a billboard. Its brilliant colours and pseudo-classical iconography speak the world language of advertising kitsch. And what does this mean for the politics on show—for the rhetoric of resistance spoken by the artist and his curators? Must it signal an art that denounces ‘police violence and state control’ while staying silent about the economic conditions that enable them? A reduction of resistance to a cultural pose—dispensing with any critique of capitalism? Haven’t we been here before? The fact that Louis Vuitton’s parent company lvmh owns the painting suggests an answer to such questions. I imagine ceo Bernard Arnault looking at Mamadou Gueye and smiling. Nothing out of the ordinary here: just another happy customer.