Remixing the Canon

A whole curriculum around inquiry-based projects aimed at ‘remixing the canon’ would reveal how contemporary artists improvise on the Western canon of art and visual culture, in order to comment on the significance of the African-Diaspora, Asian, and other non-European identities within contemporary civilization.

The Western canon largely dominates the genre of art history and visual culture, however, the traditional images (of affluent white figures and Christian iconography) are not indicative of the globalization that the Western world is experiencing. Black and Asian individuals make up a vital part of the growing population in Western countries, however, images of non-Caucasian men and women are portrayed differently than Caucasian men and women in mainstream works of art. There is a blatant inequity in the way that white and non-white subjects are depicted in Western artworks.

To the outside eye, as well as those from within the art world, the Western art scene would appear to be oriented to the ideals of the white male viewer. Although the art scene is expanding and becoming more diverse, the narrative of white male hegemony holds true for the greater part of Western civilization.

There are a growing number of ‘disruptors,’ whose profound multifaceted imagery challenges the status quo. Contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Awol Erizku, Dedron, Mickalene Thomas, Zhang Hongtu, and Paul Anthony Smith, have brought new meaning to the Western canon, by remixing iconic Western works of art with multicultural imagery and themes. Their remixed images have personal relevance to the artists themselves, and also address the intersectionality of identity within our collective culture.

Introducing the work of these aforementioned artists into lesson plans, will ensure a more diversified artistic and cultural dialogue, and the enduring understanding among students that art is a reflection of many vibrant and significant global experiences.

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Left: Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977). Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Partial gift of Suzi and Andrew Booke Cohen in memory of Ilene R. Booke and in honor of Arnold L. Lehman, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, and William K. Jacobs, Jr. Fund , 2015.53. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Right: Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825). Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. oil on canvas. 1800-1. Chateau de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison

Let’s start by looking at Kehinde Wiley’s portrayals of contemporary black men within his Baroque-inspired paintings. Students should scrutinize Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) juxtaposed with the painting it was appropriated from, Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (1801).

After viewing both paintings, students should receive some concise art historical background about the artists and the subject matter that each work references. Both artists paint history and present their cultural background in a symbolic manner. David, an 18th century Neoclassical French painter depicted the famous French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, leading his army into battle, while Wiley chose a man he met on the street to pose exactly as Napoleon did in David’s painting. Each artist’s work reflects great pride and an emotional involvement in the sociocultural realms they were/are involved with.

Students should then be asked to describe, interpret, and analyze Wiley’s painting. What are some of the similarities between Wiley and David’s paintings? What creative liberties did Wiley take in altering David’s painting in order to influence our understanding of the work in a contemporary perspective (i.e. what do you think those changes signify)? Was this a successful transformation (i.e. did it make us think about the work in an entirely new light after discussing it in context with the original painting, and the larger context of the Western canon)? 

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Awol Erizku, Girl with a Bamboo Earring, 2009. Courtesy the artist

Awol Erizku’s Girl With A Bamboo Earring (2009), Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007, Zhang Hongtu’s The Last Banquet (1989), and Dedron’s Mona Lisa With Pet (2009), are works of art that sample iconic Western paintings in order to create new meaning. Each artist transforms the original painting they’ve referenced by incorporating their unique and diverse cultural perspectives into an entirely new composition.

Erizku’s photographs of contemporary black women address works from the Western canon that typify traditional notions of feminine beauty. For example, Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring (1665) becomes Girl With A Bamboo Earring. Here Erizku is asking us to consider how we have and continue to idealize beauty, and black feminine identity throughout the course of Western civilization.

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Mickalene Thomas (American, born 1971). A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007. Acrylic, enamel and rhinestones on wood panel, Overall: 108 x 144 in. (274.3 x 365.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Giulia Borghese and Designated Purchase Fund, 2008. © Mickalene Thomas, Image courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

Mickalene Thomas also riffs on “Old Master” European and modernist works of art by incorporating powerful representations of black femininity where white subjects have traditionally been featured. Her painting A Little Taste Outside of Love, samples compositional elements from Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534) and Manet’s Olympia (1865). Thomas’ painting addresses both the objective and passive role female subjects have played in Western art, as well as the fact that black women were not typically portrayed as major subjects in Western painting. While Titian’s and Manet’s “venus figures” lay passively, presented for the sole enjoyment of the viewer, a white male; Thomas’ Venus is assertive and powerful. She addresses a different type of viewer, the strong black woman.

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Dedron, Mona Lisa With Pet, 2009, mineral pigment on canvas. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi

Tibetan artist, Dedron, recasts popular imagery from Western paintings within a new environment, replete with Eastern iconography and mythology. For example her painting, Mona Lisa With Pet, transforms Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) into an amalgamation between Eastern and Western culture. The iconic figure of the Mona Lisa is transformed to a vibrant new land, and is depicted with animistic symbols of Buddhist mythology such as the Fenghuang (the mythological bird on Mona Lisa’s shoulder) and dragon.

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Zhang Hongtu, The Last Banquet, 1989.

Zhang Hongtu’s work uses the Western canon, including Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1498), to critique a part of contemporary Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution, where Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, sought to remove all elements of traditional Chinese culture, especially the arts and philosophy. In fact, his Red Army sought to physically destroy monuments to historically and culturally revered figures such as Confucius. Hongtu’s mixed-media work is made from pages of Mao’s  “Little Red Book,”

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Paul Anthony Smith, Woman #3, 2013, unique picotage on archival pigment print, courtesy of Zieher Smith, New York

Within his picotage works, such as Woman #3 (2013), Jamaican-American artist Paul Anthony Smith manipulates modern day photographs by picking away at their surface to create a pattern that is symbolic of traditional African beaded masks, in order to make connections between the African Diaspora and question the complexity of the his own cultural background. Looking at Smith’s work, students can openly discuss questions such as ‘what is a diaspora?’ and ‘how does the amalgamation of worldly cultures influence, change, obscure, and benefit our collective identities?’

Several lessons incorporating different media and techniques, can be used to develop a multicultural arts-centered curriculum, which references the Western canon in a way that makes it relevant to students who may not feel well represented by the traditional imagery often associated within well known works of art. Any of the examples above by Wiley, Erizku, Dedron, Thomas, Hongtu, and Smith, can serve as inspiration for projects that have personal significance to the students’ lives and express the intersectionality of  identity. Educators should always keep up with the work of contemporary artists throughout the global art community, and incorporate work by many different artists throughout the academic year.

In the classroom, students should be encouraged to share their personal experiences of cultural traditions that have been passed down within their family or community. How have these traditions held up in the contemporary world? If they began outside of the country/city/state that they’re currently living in, how have these customs or traditions been modified or transformed to correspond with their new geographical environment? Students will think about their own cultural identities and the customs and traditions that are familiar to them. They can make a list of specific iconography associated with their cultural identity and discuss how their cultural experiences are different or similar to the mainstream images they see in Western culture. Assuming the role of a sociologist/anthropologist, students can interview a family member in order to find out about their cultural identity and then create a portrait of them, which expresses that information. For example, they can photograph their subject posing as a figure within a well known work of art and transform the more traditional artwork into a personalized portrait with symbols or elements that are indicative of the person they have chosen to represent. The possibilities are diverse and plentiful.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Marshall, Julia & Donahue, David M. (2014).  Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

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