The Emperor’s New Wall Hangings

Toast to my evilness

Empire, my favorite television melodrama, is so dense with gold chains,  so rife with betrayal, and so bonkers in its plotting that you would be forgiven for missing some of the show’s subtler motif work. The clothes are one thing (nary a dame is seen without 5 inch heels, even when doing push-ups) and the physical spaces another (all-gold-everything). And yet the uniting aesthetic, as one of the show’s designers coins it, could be described as “ghetto fabulous.”

The term ghetto fabulous offers a rebuttal to those who would use “ghetto” as a pejorative adjective, describing something shoddy or ill-made. The fabulousness of all things on Empire cannot be disputed, and yet there are different kinds of fabulousness, not all of it ghetto. A recurring friction on the show is the cultural rift between those who came up on the streets (mama and papa Lyons, Thirsty) and those who didn’t, such as the YMCMB progeny and bourgie, lily-skinned Anika. Luscious, like the Jay-Z he is modeled after, has a foot in both worlds, and is the embodiment of the one-in-a-billion rags-to-riches success stories. It’s an American tale, but one rarely told outside of the medium of rap.  Even for its capitalist zeal, its celebration of material-driven narcissism, and its earnest embrace of the patriarchal family structure, the show’s focus on black aspiration at the highest levels of the fake Empire show universe is kinda revolutionary.  Luscious and Cookie are the embodiment of ghetto fabulous.

Enter Kehinde Wiley painting. Of all the contemporary art of Empire, Wiley’s paintings are the most ubiquitous–hanging in the dining room and living room at the Luscious Lair, ready to be unpacked in Cookie’s new Dynasty office, illuminating the office at Empire, in Hakeem’s penthouse. You name the space, and a Wiley can’t be far away.

I first saw his paintings in the Brooklyn Museum, and admit I’d never even heard of him before. In a strange quiet corner, some ceiling panels were installed from Wiley’s series “Go.” These paintings–in scale, in the bodily posture of their subjects, in their heavenly environment, reminded me of the Sistine Chapel; the subjects, of Wu-Tang.  I was so delighted by the concept, and surprised that no one seemed to think of it earlier.

The Michelangelo + 90s rappers effect is all fine and good and the point, I think, of the gorgeous, technicolor oil paintings by Wiley. But they aren’t mere meme-quality in their incongruity. They’re recontextualizations of black people–some in attire easily identified as “hood”: low-slung jeans, drawers hanging out, hoodies, Timbos, etc, and a recontextualization of reverential Western art iconography, like the luminous portraits of saints and martyrs. Putting the two together challenges our racial/historical associations, synthesizing unlike traditions to melt arbitrary, sometimes racist boundaries. Beyond Renaissance painting, Wiley seems fond of perfect, repeated patterns, like William Morris and other Victorian printers, but with a technicolor boost, unafraid of pinks, reds, yellows. His subjects may appear with halos or appear to glow like saints, but in the Go series, they are placed against a doily of royal Islamic lattice work. It would be wrong to say these paintings are merely mash-ups of high and low, of royal versus hood, which I think it would be easy to say. Empire shows there’s nothing contradictory or at odds about being black and enormously successful, powerful, and rich. But it is something new for the United States, historically, and something network television is new to showing. Hence, Wiley’s paintings are a perfect thematic complement to the Lyon family, who find themselves in situations where far more white faces have gone before. “What’s the last thing you expect to see at a black tie/ a black guy,” Kanye said of this phenomenon of the upper echelons, and all things we consider synonymous with high class.

Other paintings I spotted were some Basquiats, which obviously makes sense given the artist’s near-universal hip-hop cred. Others have catalogued the art of the show, to my surprise. So I’ll link them out of obligation.

The artwork that inspired me to write this post, though, was an ironic use of Kara Walker. I first saw Kara Walker’s silhouettes in the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She is known for creating silhouettes, like paper dolls, which appear in innocent and sorta folk-arty scenes, like an embroidered pillow of farm animals at grammaw’s house. But the whole point is that the innocence is belied by the depiction of something gruesome in the “it is heritage,” genre of American cruelty, be it a lynching, a rape, or a beating.

While Empire’s partnership with Wiley is intentional and well-paired, the show veered off into ignoramus territory by placing a Kara Walker piece in Lola’s girly-princess bedroom. In the direct sightline of Lola’s bed is a Walker vignette featuring two children playing under a tree. And from a higher branch that we cannot see, a body dangles, with only legs visible at the top of the circular scene. It’s a picture of a lynching, but the cute silhouettes of little children with braided pigtails was apparently an  irresistible design choice for the little girl’s room, historical underbelly be damned.

MAYBE–just maybe–this cunning show wanted to convey what Walker does–that within every adorable pastoral lies someone’s brutal oppression and the heritage of American racism. That there is no such thing as cuteness. Lola’s origins, after all, are sorta messed up–nothing innocent or lovely about That’s So Raven’s baby’s daddy. But more likely, some designer wanted to big-up Kara Walker to the neglect of her themes.

As far as the sins of patronage go, this is a lesser one. Because like the Lyons, the work of these black artists has only recently come to grace the corridors of power.