Painting in highly naturalistic modes, Kehinde Wiley is a portraitist in the Western Classical tradition. By inserting contemporary black and brown figures in place of white ones, however, Wiley’s portraits have generated new discourses about the representation of race and gender in art. The artist earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and MFA from Yale University in 2001. He is now based in New York.
Wiley began painting his signature portraits in 2001, 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, Wiley’s larger-than-life portraits celebrate the sitters’ youth and their place in the world.
Wiley’s revisionist portraits cast new light on the canon of established white aristocrats 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 1803 masterpiece of similar title and the same subject matter. In this equestrian portrait, Wiley replaces the French general and his 19th-century military regalia with an anonymous black man dressed in contemporary cargo pants and boots; the grand Alps are now a decorative background reminiscent of French fabric. By applying qualities historically reserved in Western ideology for white males—such as wealth, power and establishment—to urban contemporary African Americans, Wiley brings attention to the absence of central black figures in the history of Western portraiture.
Since 2007, Wiley has extended his street casting globally. In his ongoing series ‘The World Stage’, the artist continues to paint anonymous individuals—mostly black, but also increasingly brown—from countries as varied as Brazil, China, Haiti, Israel, Nigeria, Senegal and Sri Lanka. He also makes further references to these cultures through his use of decorative textile and wall patterns sourced from, for example, African textile design and Islamic architecture. The bright colours and intricate patterns hark back to the colonial Dutch textile industry in the 19th century and allude to different cultural relationships in the past and the present.
In addition to his growing representation of subjects other than African American men, Wiley has begun to depict women. The series ‘An Economy of Grace’ (2012) consisted solely of females. It was later accompanied by a feature film that documented the process behind the series. Directed by Jeff Dupre and produced by Show of Force, the film was awarded the HBO Audience Award for Best Short Film at the Provincetown Film Festival.
One of the most celebrated painters of his generation, Wiley has exhibited widely in Europe and the USA. In 2015 (20 February–24 May), the Brooklyn Museum hosted a mid-career survey titled A New Republic, which toured to four other museums. At Seattle Art Museum, a record-breaking 2,800 people attended on its opening day. Wiley’s 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, New York, amongst others.
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Kehinde Wiley, who has just been tasked with painting Barack Obama's portrait, is known for his paintings of young black men and women in the style of European Old Masters. But last night at the British Film Institute in London, Wiley unveiled his first film, Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), which looks at migration, madness and colonisation in...