Kehinde Wiley: The predominant African American painter changing the art world

Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), Judith and Holofernes, 2012, oil on linen, framed: 130 1/2 x 99 7/8 in (331.5 x 253.7 cm), purchased with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes in honor of Dr. Emily Farnham, by exchange, and from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest), 2012, 2012.6 © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art and Sean Kelly, New York.

Contemporary African American portraiture and icon Kehinde Wiley has become one of the most notable and influential figures in the art world. Wiley’s riff on traditional European portraits challenges the fabric of society’s long-held beliefs about Black personhood, vulnerability, and power.

Kehinde Wiley, the Los Angeles-born and Brooklyn-based painter, has made strides in the Black community by becoming one of the most honored and recognized modern artists. Wiley paints portraits of predominant, strong Black people with a vibrant backdrop surrounded by whimsical florals and patterns. He reinvents traditional portraits of European figures to honor Black excellence and public figures, a riff on what Wiley calls the “Old Masters.”

Most notably, Wiley debuted his portrait of former President Barack Obama in 2018. The project features the former president on a chair with emerald and bright green florals as his backdrop. “The commission of the portrait has been about society saying, ‘who are the people we collectively want to honor?’” explained Wiley in a 2018 Time Magazine interview about working with the president.

But Wiley’s portraits aren’t exclusive to well-known public figures. His subjects range from people on the street to his collaborators. His portraits challenge the very fabric of power and privilege. The Frick Art Museum Pittsburgh is displaying his works at its Slay exhibit, which “pairs two monumental paintings created 400 years apart—one by Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian artist and one of the most successful female painters of the 17th century, and the second by Wiley.” You can check out Slay now through July 10.

Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome 1593-Naples ca. 1653), Judith and Holofernes, c. 1612-1617, oil on canvas, 62 ½ x 49 ½ in (159 x 126 cm), inv. Q 378, Napoli, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte.

Wiley grew up in South Los Angeles. Poor, queer, and Black, Wiley’s interest in art sparked at a young age, a space where he could escape America’s expectations and limited notions. When he was 12, he moved to Russia to participate in an educational arts program, where he studied the Russian language and his artistic contemporaries.

His talent earned him his high school diploma from Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. He earned his BFA in San Francisco and received a scholarship to complete his MFA at Yale University. Wiley ended up in New York at the Studio Museum in Harlem as one of their artists in residence. His inspiration for portraits allegedly came from a crumpled mugshot he found while walking in Harlem, gleaming his curiosity about portraits, Black vulnerability, power, and privilege.

He eventually traveled to West Africa and Nigeria to reconnect with his estranged father and began scoping out his “street subjects.” Men he found possessed a particular spirit, and he began choosing his subjects to help him refine and perfect his work over the years.

Wiley’s artist residency program, Black Rock in Senegal, is his method of connecting with other African artists and supporting the success of up-and-coming African artists and their diaspora. 

With an impressive design, communal services, and stunning views of the beach, the residency program hosts about 40 artists, filmmakers, and writers whose work emphasizes West Africa. The residency consists of a pool, spa, gym, and library and even hosts private concerts—Alicia Keys and Moses Sumney have performed in the past.

It’s referred to as the New African Renaissance, surrounded by rocky shores, stunning beaches, and a community filled with eclectic personalities and artistic inspiration everywhere.

Wiley has gone on to win several awards and recognitions throughout his career. His legacy, however, has inspired artists and people around the world to challenge stereotypes and notions of success and power. Wiley’s portraits take up space in galleries and places that were perhaps once exclusively for conventional, white, Anglo-Saxon painters, showing the worthiness of Black power and strength.

Exhibitions worldwide feature Wiley’s current works, including the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, museums in Italy, and galleries worldwide. Last year, Wiley won the Apollo Artist of the Year Award. It doesn’t seem like the artist plans on stopping anytime soon.

Polarized

Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), Judith and Holofernes, 2012, oil on linen, framed: 130 1/2 x 99 7/8 in (331.5 x 253.7 cm), purchased with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes in honor of Dr. Emily Farnham, by exchange, and from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest), 2012, 2012.6 © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art and Sean Kelly, New York.

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