”I can tell you that I’m the first African-American artist to create the portrait of the president. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1977, openly gay painter Kehinde Wiley has his studio in Brooklyn. He is known for his large-scale portraits, and I mean big-big, where black people occupy scenes from typical European paintings; where once there were only white nobles, kings and queens, Wiley inserts “brown faces” long absent from Western art: rappers, athletes, street kids, sports heroes, using a visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic and the sublime in his representations of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world. Dressed in street clothes, his models assume poses from the paintings of Renaissance masters.
Wiley has made some departures from his signature images of men against wallpaper-like backgrounds. In 2012, he focueds on black women with his show An Economy Of Grace. Wiley had a retrospective in 2016 at Seattle Art Museum. His 2017 series Trickster includes 11 paintings of contemporary African-American artists that he says explore the relationship between each artist and the broader community.
In October 2017, it was announced that Wiley had been commissioned to produce a portrait of Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This painting was unveiled on February 12, 2018 and the Internet was ablaze with comments. It seemed like everyone was suddenly an art critic. He and Amy Sherald, who did Michelle Obama’s portrait, are the first black artists to create official presidential portraits.
He is still most noted for his portraits of young men. He has painted men from Harlem, and the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood where he was raised. Wiley describes his approach as “interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit”. His paintings fuse history and style in a unique and contemporary manner.