Sarah M. Estrela

Kehinde Wiley. Judith and Holofernes, 2012. Oil on linen, Artist’s studio, Brooklyn, New York.

Figure 1. Kehinde Wiley. Judith and Holofernes, 2012. Oil on linen, Artist’s studio, Brooklyn, New York.

Works of art have a profound impact on shaping the ways by which people view other people and cultures different from their own. The concept of the “Other” (also referred to as the Constitutive Other) is fundamentally based on the perception of difference. It is an attempt to define what the Self is not. When one is deemed to be Other, one does not adhere to established norms or possess the approved characteristics deemed acceptable to the majority social identity.

Feminist philosophy adopted the concept of the Other in the 1950s through Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental book, The Second Sex (1949). As Beauvoir wrote, “The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that to the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts…Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.” 1

When a work of art depicts a figure, group, or characteristic as Other, it actively alienates it from the majority social group by distinguishing, labeling, and identifying the figure, in order to exclude it. Throughout Western history, male control of the gaze has established anyone (or anything) that is not male, white, or heteronormative as the Other. After feminists theorized the Other, however, Otherness has come to encompasses additional definitions of difference, both racial and sexual.

To identify a figure (or group of figures) as the Other in a work of art is to recognize that the perspective of the majority is being expressed. If a work of art is interpreted as transgressive (or, if the work expresses the perspective of the Other) its transgression lies in the fact that the majority is unable to socially identify with it. It does not necessarily mean that the subject(s) of the work are unequal to the social majority. Rather, the act of Othering is a political expression on behalf of the majority group that reflects a fear of losing political, social, or economic power.

Kehinde Wiley’s Judith and Holofernes (2012), from his An Economy of Grace series, exemplifies the complexities behind Otherness and the process of exploring the Other [Figure 1]. The series is, significantly, Wiley’s first serious exploration of the female form. More importantly, it is his first time depicting young women of color. Wiley identifies as a gay Black male, and remarked that the majority of his work is a “type of self-portraiture.” This series is a significant departure from maintaining the narrative of his own identity:

I never paint myself, but I do think there is a way of looking at the world, or a way of being in the world. A way of looking at people who come from ghettos and underserved communities, and I look at that with a type of empathy…I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make quite the same type of statement involving women. How could I? At its best, what I try to do with whether it be women or people from other traditions or cultures or nations is sort of put myself in a place of discomfort, or destabilizing place. 2

Judith and Holofernes serves as an exploration of both the Other (for Wiley), and the complexity of racial identity between two members of the same sex who are posited of being each one’s Other. On one level, gender is manipulated as the white woman is positioned as Holofernes, the male Assyrian general who nearly sieged Judith’s city, Bethulia. On another level, the image of a confident young Black woman maintaining eye contact with the viewer while holding the head of a young white woman evokes more than just a shift in traditional portrayals of this Biblical scene. Race is literally brought to front and center through the perpetual Constitutive Other––the young black woman––decapitating a member of the oppressive race despite perceivably sharing the same gender. In art history, the Black figure is usually present in order to provide Otherness to whiteness, since the vast majority of narratives have been (and still are) made for white viewers. Challenging this norm in such a provocative way invites the viewer to see this figure in a new light, one that places power and privilege to the typically marginalized.

Judith and Holofernes is an exploration of what it means to transfer power from the Self to the Other, putting forth the image of what it looks like when the Other reclaims autonomy in the presence of the majority. Wiley’s Judith threatens not only the white majority by decapitating one whose gender is assumed to be the same, but also threatens the male viewer by staring back with a suggestive look, implying, “You’re next.”



  1. Simone de Beauvoir, “Introduction” in The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952): xvi.
  2. Rea McNamara, “Five Questions: Kehinde Wiley,” The Drake, February 24, 2014, http://www.thedrake.ca/blog/2014/02/five-questions-kehinde-wiley