Perhaps more than any other artist, Michael Jackson’s legacy stretches beyond record sales and number of chart-topping singles and albums. Of course, both are astonishing and barely believable. But more than mere numbers, he was the King of Pop, a global superstar and a musical genius who revolutionised the music video. And as this highly-acclaimed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery makes clear (neatly titled On the Wall), he was an inspiration even to those far outside of music.
That includes Kehinde Wiley, who has numerous artworks here, based on the idea of Jackson as an “American Jesus”. Though these works were all released after Jackson’s death in 2009, the pair had discussed several ideas, having initially met in 2007 for a cover story in Ebony magazine.
But what makes the exhibition so special is the shear range of artwork, with each artist feeling their own connection to the iconic popster for different reasons. Each room references a different song title to express a different creative ideology, covering the 48 different artists. These include surreal and sensitive pieces from Mark Ryden, Paul McCarthy and Rita Ackermann.
What is clear is just what made Michael Jackson so special. While only one or two of his songs are actually played, the exhibition helps show some of the reasons why. There’s a video from the start of his famous concert in Romania after the fall of communism. Even before he starts performing, every movement receives a seemingly impossible increase in adoration. On another video, there’s also some detail of the moonwalk. And there’s no missing that jacket.
Something that also comes across, is Jackson’s role as a black icon. Susan Smith-Pinelo, whose work is included, is quoted as highlighting the inspirational role Jackson played even in his early days. She recalled that the Jacksons were “the first wholesome black family who entered homes all over the US”, at a “time when most black people were protrayed as criminals, drug addicts or violent”. Jackson’s influence is marked in the same realm of other “black heroes” as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. And that is something that will live just as long as his music.