It was while growing up in Los Angeles as the son of a vintage furniture dealer that Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley discovered the textile and wallpaper designs of William Morris. The influence of the Arts and Crafts polymath can be seen in the floral-backed portraits with which Wiley has made his name, including the 2017 painting of Barack Obama that now hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and a series of new works currently on show at Morris’s childhood home in Walthamstow, east London.
Titled The Yellow Wallpaper, the exhibition is a response to the 19th-century short story of the same name by American novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which the narrator, a new mother diagnosed with hysteria, is shut up in a room papered in a sickly yellow pattern. “The Yellow Wallpaper explores the contours of femininity and insanity,” says Wiley of the show’s inspiration. “This exhibition seeks to use the language of the decorative to reconcile blackness, gender, and a beautiful and terrible past.”
In bringing Perkins Gilman into his work, Wiley drew upon a connection between the writer and the Morris family. “William Morris’s daughter, May Morris, had actually met Charlotte Perkins Gilman and they’d corresponded with each other,” explains Rowan Bain, the show’s curator. “And Gilman was familiar with William Morris’s wallpaper. When you read The Yellow Wallpaper, you can see that her ideas of what was a hideous wallpaper match with Morris’s ideas about what was a hideous wallpaper - even down to the use of colour. He didn’t like that kind of buttery yellow. It was Kehinde’s idea to work with The Yellow Wallpaper, but there’s a kind of serendipity to it.”
The six new portraits by Wiley feature women from east London street-cast by the artist himself in Dalston. “The subjects of the portraits are just normal people going about their day-to-day business,” says Bain. “It was amazing to see how Kehinde worked with them. We’re all so used to having our photos taken, or taking selfies, but the way Kehinde gets people to pose and then portrays them is so far removed from that kind of self-representation. He transforms them. They become statuesque and proud.”