Global Artists: Kehinde Wiley, a portrait of Black beauty

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As we leave the calming, natural beauty of Rithika Merchant’s pieces, we turn to the visually stunning, absolutely gorgeous patterns and portraits of another favorite artist of mine, Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley was born in Los Angeles to an African American mother and a Nigerian father. He was raised by his mother, Freddie Mae Wiley, who cultivated his love of art from a young age. Wiley was very passionate and even spent a short amount of time at a Russian art school in St. Petersburg when he was 11, learning the portraiture techniques and styles that would remain at the core of his work throughout his adult life. 

After graduating Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Wiley went to Nigeria to contact his father and connect to his African heritage, which expresses itself in the vibrant colors, patterns, and subjects prominent in his work today. Wiley then went on to graduate from Yale University of the Arts, becoming a resident artist in New York City, where he still lives today, when he’s not traveling.

If you have heard of Wiley, it was probably in reference to when he painted former President Barack Obama’s official portrait for the Smithsonian (it was also on exhibition at the De Young Museum a year ago). Obama doesn’t just ask anyone to paint his official portrait, so that should tell you something about the caliber of Wiley’s art. The Obama portrait is a perfect example of Wiley’s style: A glowing figure set against an absolutely stunning background, alive with intricate patterns and colorful flora.

Wiley focuses almost exclusively on Black (African-diasporic) subjects, and especially likes reimagining baroque and medieval portraiture with a black artist, subject, and lens. He has remade many classic portraits, like those of Napoleon (“Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps”, 2005) or English kings (“The Triple Portraits of Charles I”, 2007), all with a new vibrancy. His subjects come from all over the world, and he usually travels to a specific country or city to do a collection, such as Havana, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri. 

If I was to recommend any one collection, I would have to recommend “A Maze Of Power” (2023). It is an incredible set of portraits of presidents from several nations in Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Rwanda, etc.) Beyond the utter beauty of the paintings, they are extremely powerful. The presidents are sitting like the lords of old Europe, but they are not wearing old furs and European dress. Some are wearing sharp cut suits and others are in gorgeous traditional clothing, emanating power and pride. This collection perfectly encapsulates Wiley’s work – stunning, powerful, and Black.