On February 12, 2020, Gaëtan Bruel, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, awarded Kehinde Wiley with the insignia of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in a ceremony held at the Brooklyn Museum, in New York.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear Kehinde Wiley,
In the 19th century, to honor someone, you painted their portrait. In 2020, we give them a medal! – It’s less bulky!
So, for a few minutes, I’m going to be David, and you Napoleon…
Or, if you prefer, we can say that you are William, and I am Kehinde…
The main thing is that you are the one riding a horse!
And actually, you had a narrow escape: the Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon, the National Order of Merit was created by Napoleon… But the Order of Arts and Letters, created in the 20th century, is the only French order that has nothing to do with Napoleon!
I am particularly happy that the French Government has chosen to honor you, also because it’s cool to honor someone in the greatest French tradition, while that person has rightly played with this tradition.
Everyone here knows you, so there is actually no need to award you with a medal to tell you how much we love and appreciate your work.
But then, why this ceremony, beyond the pleasure of gathering together around your painting, and the sweet irony of bringing you into the French Pantheon?
There are three reasons, which I will quickly mention.
The Order of Arts and letters was created sixty years ago by the French government; it recognizes artists and writers who have made significant contributions to the arts, in France and around the world.
Obviously, you are one of them.
That you have already made a significant, and even major, contribution to the arts, is obvious for everyone here: your journey has been dazzling, from your residence at the Studio Museum to your portrait of Barack Obama.
In just a few years, you have contributed to a reconsideration of Western art history, reinvigorating figures where they had been simply forgotten or discarded.
Your series “Rumors of War” demonstrated your talent, the ease with which you navigate the history of art, but also your courage in a context where this gesture was very political.
Since then, each of your new projects receives considerable attention, because it redraws the contours of art, and of an art which aims to reveal the truth to our society.
You are a great artist who has – and this is the second reason – privileged links with France. You have studied the classics of French art history, and since then you have been in constant dialogue with them, where fascination is mixed with distance and irony. Speaking about Paul Gauguin, you have said: “I wanted to [both] honor and disrespect him”. This mixture of admiration and insolence speaks well of your relationship to France and what it embodies: gratitude for the great tradition that never departs from a certain playfulness and a right sense of what also happened in the past.
It leads me to mention the last reason behind this honor, which explains why France celebrates those who highlight some dark sides of its culture, our culture. We do this because we believe you’re right, because it is important to break with the imperialisms of the past, to make room for everyone, and to adopt, what you called, in a recent interview, a “language of dignity.”
Today for example, we believe that French is no longer the language of France, spoken by 60 million people, but it is the language of the Francophonie, the French-speaking world, spoken by 400 million people. And through your links with Senegal, the residency project that you have opened there, you belong to this great community.
“David meets Wiley”; You might think that the comparison with David, one of the greatest French artists of the 19th century, is flattering, but in reality, it is David who should be flattered.
Dear Kehinde, you have already accomplished so much, but you have a role to play now more than ever. Our era needs you, to better understand where we come from, to give a powerful voice to those who had been deprived of it, and to create, by the magic of your work, a space for reconciliation, where there is no longer a division between those who have the right to history and those who do not, but the same dignity for all.
Au nom du Gouvernement français, nous vous faisons Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Kolin N. Mendez for the Brooklyn Museum
Twitter | Instagram: @kolinmendez | #kolinmendezphotography