Kehinde Wiley: Without Saying a Word He Says So Much

Kehinde Wiley at Seattle Art Museum
Kehinde Wiley at Seattle Art Museum | Photo by Jimmy Thomas

Without saying a word Kehinde Wiley says so much. Famous for his 2018 portrait of former President Barack Obama. With work that talks this loudly and represents everything the audience wants to hear, Kehinde Wiley is ahead of his time.

Born in 1977, the decade of great creativity, to a Nigerian father and African American mother Wiley is a product of his environment. Growing up in Los Angeles, California in the 1980s had its own challenges. Art and art school presented a way out of the hood for Wiley and his twin brother. He went on to graduate from the San Francisco Art Institute in late 1999 and received his MFA (Master of Art) from Yale University in 2001. 

Wiley’s big break came through straight out of Yale in 2001 with a residency at the Studio Museum, Harlem. Wiley credits this residency for giving him the practical and creative means to start his creative journey. Focusing on portraits of young black men and women at ease in their own environment in their own clothes; without prompting, but placing them in reimagined classical portraiture, Wiley has created a poignant narrative that is both powerful and unique.

Old Masters Re-Mastered 

The influence of old masters is ever-present: his 2005 Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps says everything you need to know. The painting is a reproduction of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of 1800-01. History tells us that Charles IV, who commissioned this painting, used it as a propaganda tool. Napoleon didn’t pose for this painting and was, in fact, miles away when victory against the Austrians was declared.

The significance of this piece and his entire catalogue puts the spotlight on authority, hyper-masculinity and gender identity; and includes many references to ordinary people of colour whose achievements have been bleached out of history. All of this significance is enveloped with a nod to hip-hop culture, and framed with the everyday violence experienced by young black men living in America and around the world today.

Life’s a Catwalk

Kehinde Wiley

Wiley thinks life should be a catwalk and has spent the last 19 years scouting the streets of New York for subjects to paint. In 2011 his attention shifts from portraits of young black men to women, hoping to capture the sense of womanhood, self-possession and possibly arrogance. Featured in the documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace—Wiley takes seven women he met on the street and brings them into the studio and fits them for haute couture gowns.

Hoping to create a language of gentility and impossible beauty, Wiley references the painter John Singer Sargent and his portraits of women in the Edwardian era and points to Sargent’s technical ability to draw using the brush. Wiley also looks to Barkley L.Hendricks for the informal twin or relaxed double sitter paintings that are evocative of his childhood in Harlem and Queens in the 1980s.

Size Matters

Wiley is not without his critics. Influenced by his time in Russia, the portrayal of young black men as saints for the imagery on stained glass for his 2015 exhibition New Republic has been denounced as sensationalist, while other parts of the same exhibition have been lauded. Wiley is quick to answer these allegations by saying he is, “Introducing a new way of seeing black and brown bodies from around the world in subversive context to challenge and enhance”.

Playing with the language of power by painting very large portraits, every aspect of the painting has been thought about; nothing is wasted. We see the figure in the foreground but what’s behind is equally as important. Let’s look at his most famous piece in context.  

The former President Barack Obama was painted by Wiley in 2018. Obama sits in a chair leaning forward seemingly floating in foliage. It’s here we see the symbolism: a chrysanthemum, the official flower of Chicago; white hibiscus—one of the national flowers of Hawaii—where Obama spent his childhood, and African blue lilies, alluding to the president’s late Kenyan father.

Barrack Obama (2018). Photo: newyorker

There is no doubt Wiley’s paintings are unique, and the fact he was chosen to paint the former president is a validation of his talent—if he ever needed validation. Wiley was the first black artist to receive a presidential commission and this is huge. But with all of this acclaim, there is still a sense of searching within the artist and his work.

The Influence of the Dogon Couple and Onwards

Talking about the Dogon Couple and his interpretation of this African sculpture, Wiley speaks of his authentic attachment to Africa and to a father he didn’t know. Painting is Wiley’s way of documenting a culture, a feeling, and to feel connected with the past and the future. Combining the colours of the Dutch wax print fabrics and global culture, through to documenting life in the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, Wiley leaves nothing out.

Finally, taking on the subject of the third gender in Tahiti’s Māhū community, Wiley presents the subject in the style of Paul Gaugin, referencing the effects on Tahiti through colonialism. This is not a celebration of Gaugin, but a comment on Gauguin’s depictions of the Māhū as being unrealistic portrayals that sexually objectify the community for the sake of his white audience back home.

Wiley now resides in New York and China; with his latest project seeing him take up residence in Senegal and a project called “Black Rock”—the world waits to see what Wiley says next.

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