Essays

How the Identity Politics of ‘Empire’ Play Out on Its Walls

Kehinde Wiley's "Prince Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria" in Fox's 'Empire' (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)
Kehinde Wiley’s “Prince Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria” in Fox’s ‘Empire’ (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

Not 10 minutes into the pilot episode of Fox’s TV drama Empire, Kehinde Wiley’s bright yellow portrait “Prince Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria” looms into view above the dining room table where the men of the Lyon family are gathered: Lucious Lyon and his three sons, Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem, the scions of Empire Records. The portrait’s subject, a young Jamaican man, appears like a fourth son, looking on attentively from his frame, a prince among princes.

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A portrait of a black man on the face of a quarter (click to enlarge)

On the show, art fills the Lyon family interiors, nearly all of it by African Americans. Some pieces are instantly recognizable — most prominently works by Wiley, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kara Walker — but unlike the show’s overt references to King Lear, Machiavelli, James Brown, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, the visual art is a more esoteric allusion, and easier to miss. Even watching the season with one eye on its walls, I was unable to identify some of the most arresting pieces; art is frustratingly difficult to Google.

But, wall labels or no, many of the pieces speak for themselves — a large-scale portrait of a black man on the face of a quarter, from Sylvia Maier’s Currency series; another of a man with hair in the shape of Africa. In these and other pieces, the art of Empire reflects the contemporary American blackness at the show’s core.

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A Basquiat crown hovering over the head of one of the Lyons

“Prince Albert” is part of Wiley’s World Stage series, which features men from around the world painted into historical artworks of their choosing. Like much of Wiley’s work, the series subverts European art history by replacing white subjects with non-white ones, often without changing the title. Empire makes a similar switch, casting a self-made American dynasty — with all the drama of Dynasty, let it be said — not as Trumps or Kochs or Vanderbilts, but as moguls of color. Wiley’s Napoleon Bonaparte is a black man in camouflage pants and Timberland boots; Empire co-creator Lee Daniels’s businessman is played by Terrence Howard instead of Jon Hamm.

In the context of an office, a Basquiat is as much a piece of art as it is a sum of money on display. But in the context of the office of a rapper–turned–record executive poised to become the CEO of the first black-owned entertainment company on the New York Stock Exchange, even a fake Basquiat takes on a more multifaceted significance. More than once, the camera carefully pans a painted crown onto the head of one of the Lyon men, underscoring the show’s Shakespearean soap-opera mash-up. It’s almost too much when, in a particularly monarchical moment in Lucious’s office, we see a fourfold portrait of him, crown cocked to the side in a visual triple entendre that references Warhol, Basquiat, and the Notorious B.I.G.

'Empire'
A visual triple entendre in ‘Empire’

One of the fullest examples of Empire‘s use of art to underscore and outline American blackness is Jamal Lyon’s expansive, Rent-style loft. Its wall and tables are dotted with traditional African art, including a painted calabash, a carved door, and several Dogon ladders. He also has a number of works by contemporary artists, including Michael Savoie, an African American painter based in Dallas, whose work can be seen in the homes of Cookie, the Lyon matriarch, and Hakeem and Lucious as well. More than any other interior in the show, the apartment of Jamal, the gay, African American heir to a cultural empire, pairs traditional African objects with contemporary black artists’ work to create a rich layering of visual identity politics.

Dogon ladders in Jamal's apartment
Dogon ladders in Jamal’s apartment

In contrast, Andre, Lucious’s eldest son, lives with his blonde, white wife in a townhouse full of dull landscape paintings and a color palette that runs from eggshell to ecru. Andre Lyon is an outsider within the family, having finished an Ivy League MBA instead of a chart-topping album. In their first meeting after Cookie’s release from prison, she asks Andre frankly, “Why’d you marry that white girl?” The spaces he occupies are cold and dull, with none of the color of Wiley or Savoie, further distancing him from the rest of his family.

But Lucious Lyon’s identity politics may be the most fraught. Throughout the series, he struggles to reconcile his rapping, drug-dealing past with his opulent present, weighing the ways his choices have both hurt and fed his family. The foyer of his palatial residence features a large, colorful Wiley, “Naomi and Her Daughters,” based on a comparatively khaki-colored 1804 work by the English painter George Dawe, as well as Gustav Klimt’s Symbolist “Hygieia” and Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Cathedral,” of two hands nearly touching. Other European artists hang elsewhere in the house, including a van Gogh vanitas, “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette,” Monet’s “Houses of Parliament,” and Georges Seurat’s “Can-Can.” These works don’t have much to do with one another, except that their creators are long-dead white European men. The three French artists, Rodin, Monet, and Seurat, enriched the cultural heritage of the same former colonial power that once controlled Mali, the source of the Dogon ladders that dot Jamal’s apartment.

A Kara Walker in a kid's bedroom (click to enlarge)
A Kara Walker in a child’s bedroom

As we move deeper into Lucious’s house, to the family’s rooms, the Europeans fall away. A Kara Walker hangs in a child’s bedroom upstairs, Wiley’s “Prince Albert” is later moved from the dining room into the living room, and his “Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” commands another room, hanging above a small sculpture of the ancient African image of a Sphinx. At the far end of Lucious’s living room is “Wings Not Meant to Fly,” a mixed-media portrait of an angelic young black girl by Jamea Richmond-Edwards, a contemporary African American artist with an MFA from historically black Howard University.

"Wings Not Meant to Fly"
Jamea Richmond-Edwards’s “Wings Not Meant to Fly” in Lucious’s house (click to enlarge)

That an artist has an MFA from an HBCU may seem a minor point to make about a painting with probably fewer than 15 seconds of screen time in the entire season, but it is precisely these small, meaningful strokes of intention that make the visual landscape of Empire so subtly atmospheric. The most prominent visual artists of Empire are not only black but American-born, paralleling the cultural importance of American black music throughout the last century. In this sense, the Lyons’ homes are thoroughly African American spaces; the viewer’s access to their richness is deepened by his or her own knowledge and awareness.

Work by Michael Savoie in Cookie's apartment
Work by Michael Savoie in Cookie’s apartment
A portrait of a man with hair in the shape of Africa
In the background, a portrait of a man with hair in the shape of Africa
Basquiat in the office
Basquiat in the office
Wiley in the dining room
Wiley in the dining room

Episodes of Empire can be viewed on the show’s website and on Hulu.

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