Kehinde Wiley Biography
For painter Kehinde Wiley, realism is a form of subversion. Known primarily as a portraitist, he draws from Western art history—particularly Renaissance, Dutch Golden Age, Baroque, and Neoclassical painting—to examine themes of race, class, gender, and power. In his works, the artist replaces white figures with contemporary brown and black sitters, ranging from strangers he met on the streets to well-known personalities like soccer stars Samuel Eto'o, John Mensah, and Emmanuel Eboué; musicians Michael Jackson and Notorious B.I.G.; and even the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, whom he was commissioned to paint for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2018. The artist's highly naturalistic portraits are often paired with elaborate decorative motifs derived from period textiles such as Dutch wax prints and Baroque brocade.
Wiley's revisionist portraits have generated new discourse about the representation of race and gender in art, casting new light on the canon of established white aristocrats and drawing attention to the absence of black figures in the history of Western portraiture. Among the most iconic of his portraits is Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005), based on Jacques-Louis David's equestrian portrait First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (1803). In his version, the artist replaces Napoleon and his 19th-century military regalia with an anonymous black man dressed in a bandana, cargo pants, and Timberland boots. Behind the figure, the grand Alps becomes a decorative background rendered in a colour palette of red and gold. Tiny sperm were also included as relief forms in the frame—a satire on the tradition of propagating masculine power and privilege in Western portraiture through devices such as equestrian figures and military gear. Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps belongs to 'Rumors of War' (2005), a painting series that focuses on equestrian portraits.
Wiley began painting his signature portraits in 2001, while residing in New York as part of a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem that involved inviting strangers he encountered on the streets back to his studio. Imitating selected postures from historical paintings, his models posed for photographs that he would use to make his paintings. As a foil to the common association of young African American males with violence and antisocial behaviour in American popular culture, his larger-than-life portraits celebrate the sitters' youth, stature, and status within their communities. Due to the increased demand for his paintings, which are often several metres tall and densely ornate, he works with a team of assistants—a studio system that hails back to the days of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Rubens, further extending the artist's appropriation of canonical art forms and modes of working. In 2006, he opened another studio in Beijing after visiting a friend there and finding himself drawn to the city for its privacy in its distance from New York. Today, Beijing continues to be a major production centre for the artist, alongside his New York studio.
Since 2007, Wiley has extended his street casting globally with the series 'The World Stage' (2007–ongoing), for which he travels to different countries—including Brazil, France, Haiti, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka—and asks young black and brown people living there to model for him. In the paintings belonging to this series, his characteristic brightly coloured backgrounds are adorned with motifs borrowed from different visual cultures. For example, West African kaftans—known for their often colourful and complex designs—inspired the intricate backgrounds in the 'Lagos & Dakar' (2008) paintings, while the architectural form in the portrait Alios Itzhak from 'Israel' (2011) is derived from a Jewish decorative plaque known as mizrah. The history of each sitter's country also influenced their poses, such as the historic propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution that inspired 'China' (2007). One painting from the series, Celebrating with Great Joy and Enthusiasm the Publication of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China (2007), shows a young man dressed in hip-hop-style attire lifting a bundle of lilies over his head—a composition based on a poster in which a young woman similarly holds flowers while standing before red flags.
As part of his growing range of represented subjects, Wiley has begun to depict women. The series 'An Economy of Grace' (2012) consists solely of portraits of African American women wearing custom-made couture gowns (created by the Italian fashion designer Riccardo Tisci) against brightly coloured floral backgrounds. The paintings are similar in composition to historical portraits featuring female subjects by European painters. Juliette Recamier (2012), for example, depicts an African American woman reclining on a long sofa and is based on David's Madame Récamier (1800). Two paintings in the series, titled Judith and Holofernes and Judith Beheading Holofernes (both 2012), reference the biblical story of Judith, in which Judith lures an adversary into her tent to behead him. A popular subject in European art history, numerous artists, including Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi, have represented this story. In his treatment, a black woman with a knife holds the severed head of Holofernes, depicted as a white woman. In 2018, in light of the unveiling of his Obama portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, The North Carolina Museum of Art promoted Judith and Holofernes (which it had purchased in 2012) for viewing, and the artwork received some backlash from viewers who regarded it as racist.
Beyond portraiture, Wiley also examines the Western tradition of sculpture. The artist first worked in sculpture in 2006 for his collaboration with Cerealart in Philadelphia, creating a series of three busts in cast marble and resin. They depict young black men, dressed in contemporary clothes such as sleeveless shirts or hoodies, their postures based on Baroque and Renaissance artworks including the Italian sculptor Bernini's Bust of Louis XIV (1665) and French artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's Why born a slave! (1872). In September 2019, he will unveil his first public artwork, titled Rumors of War (2019), in Times Square—an equestrian statue of a young black man, conceived in response to various Confederate monuments in the United States. After its debut in Times Square, the sculpture will then be permanently installed in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
A celebrated painter of his generation, Wiley has exhibited widely in Europe and the United States. In 2015, the Brooklyn Museum in New York hosted a major solo exhibition of his work, titled A New Republic. The exhibition toured to four other museums, including the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas; the Seattle Art Museum; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; and Phoenix Art Museum. At the Seattle Art Museum, the opening-day attendance broke records with more than 2,800 visitors. His paintings are in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Brooklyn Museum, amongst other institutions.
This afternoon, a heavily trafficked isle in Times Square, Manhattan became the site of a monumental unveiling. Standing 27 feet in the air and 16 feet wide, Kehinde Wiley's bronze statue, Rumors of War (2019), made its first public appearance.
DAKAR, Senegal — The art star Kehinde Wiley is standing in the middle of his spacious bedroom with mint green walls looking like a little kid who can't wait to blurt out the surprise he's been keeping secret.Everything in his new Black Rock studio and artists' residence in Dakar is fabulous, of course. The 20-foot wooden entry door, the...
On the island idyll, the artist has immersed himself in the lives and ways of the Mahu, a centuries-old community made up of transgender women (Mahu is the traditional Polynesian classification of people of a third gender). The result is a new series of paintings and a video installation on show at Galerie Templon in Paris, focused on this...
Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated 19th-century portrait of Napoleon on horseback will be shown alongside the US artist Kehinde Wiley’s dramatic homage to David’s painting for the first time this autumn. Both works go on show at Château de Malmaison in western Paris this autumn (9 October—6 January 2020), formerly Napoleon Bonaparte’s private...
© Sylvie BoulloudGalerie Templon, ParisKEDINDE WILEYTahiti - Kehinde Wiley18 May—20 July 2019GALERIE TEMPLON, PARIS – GRENIER SAINT LAZARE
Produced to accompany the exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, this video series features the artist himself discussing his background, work, process, philosophy, and art historical influences.
Blending and contrasting contemporary clothes and objects with ornate fabrics, lush plant life, detailed patterns, and bold colors that reference earlier eras of art history, Kehinde Wiley's heroic portraits are larger than life.