Wiley’s 2012 take on Judith and Holofernes causes a stir

Friday, February 16, 2018
Kehinde Wiley, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 2012

Almost immediately following the unveiling of President Barack Obama’s official portrait by artist Kehinde Wiley, a small outcry was raised because in 2012, Wiley had painted two majestic portraits of black women brandishing the decapitated heads of a white women.  The voices claimed that the piece was racist.

Kehinde Wiley for the New York Times.  His other version of Judith Beheading Holofernes in the background.
I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, okay…please don’t attempt to narrow his creative genius down to racism, when it goes so far beyond that.’

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614-20 (wikipedia)
The pieces are actually a modern take on the numerous works depicting the fictional biblical story of Judith and Holofernes and have little to do with their idea of racism and more to do with racial and gender identity and inequity, society’s ideas of what is beautiful, and the portrayal of women, specifically black women, in art history.  Wiley simply uses Judith and Holofernes to illustrate these themes in a most amazing and provocative manner.

Kehinde Wiley, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 2012 (artnet)
As the story goes, Judith, a beautiful widow, is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors.  She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of Holofernes, an Assyrian general who was about to destroy her home, the city of Bethulia.  Ingratiating herself with the besotted Holofernes, she is allowed to enter his tent, where he lies in a drunken stupor.  She decapitates him and his head is taken away in a basket.  Without their leader, the Assyrians abandon their plan and Israel is saved.

Triophime Bigot, Judith Cutting off he Head of Holofernes, 1640 (wikipedia)
It is a story that has been painted so many times, it has become an artistic theme.  Since the Renaissance, Judith has been depicted as a saintly heroine, and an erotic femme fatale.  Portrayals of her have ranged from violent to sexual to triumphant.  Sometimes she has even been painted in the nude. Judith is an example of the Power of Women art theme in the Northern Renaissance.

Franz von Stuck, Judith. 1928 (wikipedia)
Franz von Stuck, Judith and Holofernes, 1927 (wikipedia)
 It is one of my favorite artistic themes. My favorite depictions are the ones done by Caravaggio, Klimt, Cranach the Elder, Reidel, Stuck, and of course, Wiley.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheding Holofernes, 1598-1599

Gustav Klimt, Judith I, 1901

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1530
August Reidel, Judith, 1840

Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613

Fede Galizia, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1596
I have always seen Judith as a heroine doing what she must to protect her home.  It is very much in the vein of “no one is going to save me, so I must save myself…and everyone else.”  A theme that black women know all too well.

As a black man, Wiley recognizes the connection of the Judith beheading Holofernes story to the story of black women in American society since we were first forcibly brought here in the 18th century. 

In a 1962 speech, Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman."

And yet, here we are, still powering through to save ourselves…and everybody else.  We’ve seen it time and time again over the years.  Most recently, we’ve seen black women, tired of a feminist movement that didn’t include intersectionality, start the black feminist movement in the 1980s.  We’ve seen black women, tired of watching our black men (and women) die at the hands of police, start the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  Even the “Me Too” movement was started by a black woman, Tarana Burke, and then co-opted by white Hollywood.  And let’s never forget that it was black women who solidified Doug Jones’ defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama. 

So yeah, we are familiar with the “fuck it, I’ll do it,” spirit of the biblical Judith.

Wiley, a classically trained artist known for his style of taking on the works of old masters, such as Peter Paul Rubens, Jaques-Louis David, is widely familiar with the story of Judith and Holofernes and its impact on art.  His work focuses on racism in art history, and comments on modern street culture and masculinity.  He reinvents classical portraits by replacing the white sitters we usually see in museums worldwide with contemporary African Americans. Wiley has stated, “The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it.”

The Wiley Judith and Holofernes paintings were a part of his first series of portraits of women called “An Economy of Grace,” intended to tackle the historic representation of women in art.  In a 2012 New York Magazine article on the series, Wiley said, “Women have always been decorative. They’ve never been actors or possessed real agency.”

In one of the paintings, his Judith is Triesha Lowe, a stay-at-home mom whom Wiley found at the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn. The severed head is one of Wiley’s assistants.  The North Carolina Museum of Art foundation has said about the piece, “Wiley translates this image of a courageous, powerful woman into a contemporary version that resonates with fury and righteousness.”

Wiley's "Judith" is a stay-at-home mom named Triesha Lowe.
The piece stands at eight feet by ten feet tall and references the 17th-century painting by Giovanni Baglione, “Judith and the Head of Holofernes”(1608).  Wiley’s “Judith” is wearing a dark gown, custom made by Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, her hair is perfectly coiffed, her brown skin glowing.  There is a regal tilt to her head.  I see defiance, I see resilience, I see black womanhood.  It is the same with his other Judith, who is clothed in a Renaissance-esque white gown.

Wiley's other "Judith"
Art critic Walter Robinson said about the piece that it “suggests, with a jovial brutality, that Judith would prefer to be done with white standards of beauty.”

Detail of Wiley's Judith Beheading Holofernes (artefuse.com)
So yeah, nothing racist about it, just Wiley taking societal norms and unapologetically throwing them back in the faces of the oppressors.


  1. love this post and the analysis. thank you for the excellent read.

  2. So, in other words, Kehinde views white women as invaders and black women as saviors when they are violent.

    Yeah, not racist and supportive of violence at all.

  3. Then why not a light skin man, or a white dress... People do realize from light to dark it's melanin in your skin and I guess ignorance will keep many with hate in their heart.... So sad weak when divided strong when United. Comparing it to other art not even the same story, scene, or idea....

  4. For starters, this is not art. It's pretty average graphics work. Could be ok for product packaging. Secondly, there's not a shred of connection between this expression of hatred towards white people and any of the historic references you used as pseudo-excuse. It just makes it even more cringeworthy.
    If this was a white woman proudly brandishing a black woman's head - especially without any context - I would be just as revolted. I would never stand for it.
    Much of this hatred seems to be based on complete ignorance - interviews with black people before the Chauvin trial were simply shocking. They actually believed that "thousands of unarmed black people" were "murdered" by police every year. The actual numbers - 12 to 18 per year. More unarmed white people are shot by police every year, so racism has nothing to do with it. Besides, "unarmed" does not mean "harmless".
    So let me provide you with some FACTS that you can easily verify.
    Please have a look at the official FBI statistics: since the 1960s - i.e. for about 60 years or 3 generations - blacks have been by far the worst perpetrators of violent crime in the US. Currently, although blacks represent fewer than 14% of the US population, they commit more than 50% of all homicides and property crimes.
    90% of all interracial crimes between black and white people are committed by blacks against white victims. More than 90% of all black homicide victims are killed by other blacks.
    This official data makes a complete mockery of claims about black victimization.
    The biggest problem is clearly the absence of fathers, as criminal behavior is largely driven by this one factor. White and mixed-race children also commit crimes at far greater rates when they did not have a father. This is not a problem of racism. This is a problem black people have to figure out on their own.
    Unfortunately, the celebration of this kind of "art" shows that a significant number of black people prefer to play the victim and hate cards. This worked well for the leadership of BLM. One of their co-founders bought 4 luxury villas and moved straight to an area with more than 90% white residents - the hypocrisy is baffling.
    Such "art" can only increase racist hatred. It does absolutely nothing good. That Obama used this specific individual to do his official portrait just confirms that he was not a force for good. Even the New York Times was forced to admit that race relations only got worse, during Obama's presidency. I find this very disappointing. Shouldn't art help create bridges and improve communications?