More evidence that Tampa Bay’s art game is leveling up comes with the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg acquisition of an important work by Los Angeles-born contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley.
Leviathan Zodiac is part of the Nigerian-American artist’s large-scale portraiture series The World Stage: Israel. Wiley is best known for his official portrait of President Barack Obama in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. He paints people of color dressed in street wear, in traditional poses typically held by white men throughout art history. He sandwiches realistically painted figures between incredibly intricate and colorful design motifs.
“I’ve been chasing his paintings for this museum for a while,” said executive director Kristen Shepherd. “He brings the portrait tradition into contemporary life and it’s a beautiful bridge for our encyclopedic collection, from the traditional to the contemporary.”
The museum acquired the work with funds from support group the Collectors Circle, which had been saving up for a major purchase for its 25th anniversary in 2020. Additional funds came from supporter Jim Sweeny, who has a particular commitment to increasing the amount of under-represented artists in the collection. Earlier this year, he donated a number of works by self-taught artists to the museum.
The piece belonged to the estate of Blake Byrne of Los Angeles. His wish was for the piece to go to a public collection, so his heirs placed it in the Los Angeles gallery of Julie Roberts Projects, who has represented Wiley for years, until an appropriate buyer emerged.
Shepherd used her connections to put the word out that she was looking for a Wiley painting. When this one came available, the gallery contacted her.
The 2011 painting features a young Israeli man Wiley met in a Tel Aviv nightclub. He strikes a pose reminiscent of a Greco-Roman ruler or general. The pattern that envelopes him is taken from an intricate Jewish papercut, which features designs sliced from a single piece of paper, probably from the 19th century. It depicts the zodiac and the leviathan, a mythical beast that appears in the Hebrew bible in the book of Job. Wiley designed the hand-carved frame, topped by the hands of Kohen, the Lion of Judah and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
The whopping 95.75-by-71.75-inch work will be unveiled in the museum’s Great Hall on Jan. 3.
The World Stage series was a departure for Wiley, who typically focuses on portraits of African American people. He traveled the world to places with complex socio-political structures, exploring the way hip-hop culture has pervaded the world.
The World Stage: Israel was presented at New York City’s Jewish Museum in 2012. Leviathan Zodiac was used as the exhibition catalog’s cover image.
His work can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Stars including Alicia Keys also collect his work.
Wiley, who is based in New York and Beijing, is currently making headlines with his Rumors of War, a monumental equestrian statue of a young African American man in the manner of the Confederate statues still standing in Richmond, Va. He debuted the piece in Times Square in September, but it now resides at its permanent home at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
Shepherd said she’s proud that the Museum of Fine Arts is leading the way to acquire work from important contemporary artists like Wiley.
“I think it will be a fan favorite. It will swiftly become one of the most photographed pieces in the museum. I think it will become one of the most popular pieces in the collection and one that people will make a pilgrimage to see.”