Kehinde Wiley has painted everyone from Michael Jackson and The Notorious B.I.G. to President Barack Obama. Now, in his new “Tahiti” exhibition at Galerie Templon in Paris, the LA-native painter has turned his attention to Tahiti’s Māhū community.
Before colonization, Māhū (“in the middle”), the traditional Polynesian classification of people of a third gender, represented a highly respected part of their society. Following the introduction of Catholic and Protestant missionaries, however, the Māhū were banned.
As with his broader body of work, Wiley’s paintings of members of the Māhū community subverts the treatment of black and brown bodies within the Western art-historical canon. Unlike renderings of Tahitians from the 19th century, Wiley’s depictions of his subjects aren’t voyeuristic. The Māhū are shown as powerful, facing the painter directly in bold traditional attire.
Historically, representations of Tahitian bodies have been particularly fraught due to the legacy of French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin. Well before the #MeToo movement, Gaugin presented a challenge for museum-goers. While his works are deeply important in art history and the French imagination, his paintings carry historical undertones of colonialism and sexual objectification.
Of his own paintings, Wiley says, “I interrogate, subsume, and participate in discourse about Māhū, about France, and about the invention of gender.” Browse the gallery of images above for a preview of Wiley’s work.
“Tahiti” runs until July 20 at Galerie Templon, open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
28 Rue du Grenier-Saint-Lazare