On January 28, Barnard College welcomed the installation of two paintings — by renowned painter Kehinde Wiley — outside of the Access Barnard office entrance in the lobby entrance of Milbank Hall. (Watch a video of the installation above.) The large-scale, oil-on-canvas paintings, “Portrait of Dorinda Essah” (above) and “Portrait of Savannah Essah,” are part of a series of six paintings from the William Morris Gallery exhibit “Kehinde Wiley: The Yellow Wallpaper,” the title a reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story. The paintings are on long-term loan to the College.
The portraits set modern African and African-Caribbean women from London in the lush, ornate context of British design history, allowing them to claim their place. The paintings feature a mother (Dorinda Essah) and her daughter (Savannah Essah), dressed in contemporary clothing, against the backdrop of Morris & Co.’s iconic wallpaper designs. The eponymous yellow wallpaper from Gilman’s short story eventually drives the protagonist mad, who is confined to her bedroom following a diagnosis of “hysteria,” whereas in Wiley’s portraits, Dorinda and Savannah Essah are indomitable. These pieces evoke questions about the women, the world around them, past history, and Blackness and build on Wiley’s interest in the relationship between the human body and the decorative.