The Jewish Museum, otherwise known as “that place you take Grandma when she visits,” now has the most cutting-edge artistic social commentary in the Jewish world.
By an incredibly grand stroke of luck, Israel’s whole violence-against-African-refugees thing blew up right in the middle of their exhibit by Kehinde Wiley, composed exclusively of portraits of men of color in Israel.
The exhibit was already a bold move for the Jewish Museum, given that Wiley’s repertoire is centered around portraits of black men, with motifs that blend and riff on the European Masters, West African textiles, Islamic motifs and Haruki Murakami. (Serious question: Did the Jewish Museum pick Wiley because they mistook his first name for Yiddish? “Such nachas from the kehinde! Here, let me show you pictures of my kehinde-leh.”)
Wiley is known for featuring men he meets on the street, initially in Harlem and now from locations spanning several continents (Nigeria, Brazil, China.) Israel is included among the countries selected for the collection titled “The World Stage” because, according to the Museum, the men in the series “express a modern sensibility that supersedes religious and ethnic affiliations.” Really? The YouTube shirt supercedes the fact that its wearer can’t serve in the military and get a good job?
According to the artist, Wiley included Israel in his world tour because he “wanted to mine where the world is at right now and chart the movement of black and brown men around the world.” Well, Kehinde, apparently the movement of black and brown men to and within Israel is pretty brutal: 52% of Israelis polled call African migrants “a cancer,” politicians attempt to classify them as “economic migrants” and the asylum system apparently exists merely to formalize mass deportations and repatriations of the black men fleeing certain death.
The video of the artist on the exhibit homepage shows him celebrating the diversity of Israeli society, relishing the opportunity to create powerful representations of Arab, Ethiopian, and Sephardi men. Yet we are very far from the moment when we can celebrate Israel’s diversity, when 99.9% of African asylum seekers are turned away and those who remain are subject to relentless poverty and violence.
Now might be an auspicious time for the Jewish Museum to capitalize on its newfound, perhaps unprecedented, relevance. They could provide new commentary from the artist or opportunities for discussion about the relationship between the exhibit’s subjects and the humiliating discrimination that many black men have been subjected to at the hands of the Israeli public.
Wiley attempts to challenge the hierarchy of representation in a world determined to dehumanize men of color; there can be no more poignant example of the forces he is up against than the riots and soundbites of the past several weeks.
Alas, when asked whether the Museum would consider seizing the moment through expanded commentary or programming, their response was a firm disavowal: “We have done nothing of the sort, and it’s not something we have even considered.” Even Grandma might be disappointed by this missed opportunity.