Kehinde Wiley: A Portrait of a Portrait Artist

Kehinde Wiley grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the late 80’s. As a kid, his mother made sure that he and his twin brother were focused on education and not pulled into the violence and danger of the hood. He spent his weekends in art classes.

First, he was focused on “making stuff look like other stuff,” but as he grew and attended the Art Institute of San Francisco, he began to focus his art as a painter. By the time he was attending Yale, he had begun to focus on paintings of a political nature, examining identity, gender and sexuality.

An art piece by Kehinde Wiley.

Image: Anderson Romualdo, Cordeiro, 2008, Kehinde Wiley.

Wiley is most known for his portrait work with “urban, black and brown men found throughout the world.” He initially began with portraits in New York City, but has since expanded this to the World Stage. In these portraits he employs elements from classical European portraiture, which means spending a lot of time examining portraits of wealthy white men. These European portraits have their own complex language of postures and poses that is tied directly into the character, profession, wealth and power of the person portrayed.

Wiley then takes these themes and turns them on their head by juxtaposing them with the masculinity and physicality of men of color dressed in everyday clothing. He generally asks the models to pose in a way found in paintings or sculptures representative of the history of their surroundings. For example, in 2005 Wiley was commissioned by VH1 to do a series of portraits. This led to portraits where “ Ice T channels Napoleon, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five take on a seventeenth-century Dutch civic guard company.”

The artist chose specifically to portray black men for the World Stage project. Growing up, he noted that a majority of art displayed in museums was white, so when he did connect with a black image, he felt a stronger connection because the pieces did look like him and also felt the absence of this in art. In a more recent series, Economy of Grace, he is applying similar techniques to portraying women, to broaden the conversation of females and power in art as well. Keep an eye out for this New-York based artist. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

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About Alex Holt

I am a local artist from Brooklyn, NY. I love art, design, books, photography, gardening and blogging.
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