Kehinde Wiley entered art school at the impressively young age of 11 and later studied at both the Art Institute of San Francisco and Yale. At present, his works are highly regarded for their technical beauty as well as their bold, sometimes radical statements.
Wiley’s diverse subjects often share similar characteristics. Most of his works are portraits of black individuals posed with inspiration from classical paintings against vivid decorative backgrounds. His artistic decision to paint these figures in poses classically reserved for the white and wealthy has earned him significant praise and recognition. At the heart of it lies a simple desire that stems from his youth when he visited museums that primarily displayed white subjects: representation.
The Classical Contemporary
For most of Wiley’s portraits, he employs “street casting” in which he selects his subjects by encountering them on the street rather than in a formal casting setting. Wiley often looks for black men who demonstrate “alpha male behavior,” but what this means to him varies.
The composition of each portrait draws heavily on Old Master paintings, which are largely old European works highlighting wealthy nobles or rulers. Wiley then paints his subjects in similar, recognizable poses, transposing black figures onto the forms of history’s elite. Many of his portraits feature contemporary street apparel, like hoodies and baseball caps, which creates a striking contrast with the expensive finery of the original paintings. As a final touch, Wiley never portrays his figures in a specific location, opting instead to paint backgrounds that are colorful, ornate, and timeless.
Portrait of Barack Obama
In 2017, former President Barack Obama chose Kehinde Wiley to paint his official White House portrait, which was later unveiled in February of 2018. Obama selected Wiley because his works challenged traditional notions of power by presenting black subjects in positions and contexts previously reserved for epic white leaders like Napoleon.
At Obama’s request, Wiley deviated from his typical style somewhat by depicting his subject in a plain chair against a backdrop of greenery and vibrant florals. Wiley chose the flowers (chrysanthemum, jasmine, and African blue lilies) to represent Obama’s life in Chicago and Hawaii, as well as his heritage. This piece stands out starkly against previous portraits of American presidents due to its progressive take on power, influence, and prestige.