For his exhibition at William Morris Gallery the New York-based artist came to Dalston, North London and, from photos of a number of local African and African Caribbean women, produced six portraits that respond to the decorative tropes of William Morris arts and crafts designs as well as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s (1892) novella ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
The Gilman story is a series of diary entries by a woman, struggling with what appears to be postnatal depression, whose physician husband has ordered her to take a ‘rest cure’, which turns out to be confinement in a nursery whose excessively patterned wallpaper gradually becomes a metaphor of her drift into psychosis.
Gilman’s protagonist might as well be referencing a William Morris pattern when she describes the wallpaper in the room as ‘an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions’. So Wiley uses Morris designs, suffused with yellow, not just as a backdrop for his portraits. The patterns are vibrant organisms that swirl around and festoon his subjects – a gesture not only against a modernist tradition that abhors ornament but also a repositioning of black women as subjects with power and agency within the canon of feminist discourse.