View Kehinde Wiley’s Visionary Portraits at VMFA Through September 5th

Kehinde Wiley is a portrait artist whose powerful work has been shown and honored throughout the U.S. He is known for using a process called “street casting;” asking people seen on everyday streets to be his models. He takes subjects of many ethnicities, focusing on African Americans or those with black or brown skin of other ethnic origins, and places them in striking poses and backgrounds that are drawn from and refer to various periods and movements in art history and aesthetics.

Kehinde Wiley Background

Wiley was born in 1977 in LA. His site explains that looking back, he sees that in the 80’s he,

“was very much a part of the environment that was driven by some of the defining elements of hip-hop: the violence, anti-social behavior, streets on fire.”

He, his twin brother, and his other siblings were raised primarily by his mother and he credits her with both supporting his interest in art and in keeping his young life from going off track in this setting. He recalls going to museums, taking art classes at a conservatory, and being “on lockdown” after school which he didn’t enjoy at the time but now understands and appreciates. He also remembers seeing a painting by Kerry James Marshall at LACMA (The Los Angeles County Museum of Art) as a child. He saw “The Grand Barbershop” (below), connected with it, and also noted it’s rarity in the museum as a work of art depicting people who looked like him.

Wiley earned a BFA at the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA at the Yale School of Art, completing his higher education in 2001. Wiley’s father was from Nigeria and in his 20’s he visited him and explored his African heritage. His work has been widely shown and his honors include the Artist of the Year Award from the New York City Art Teachers Association/United Federation of Teachers and Canteen Magazine’s Artist of the Year Award. In 2010 he partnered with PUMA to paint players Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, John Mensah of Ghana and Emmanuel Eboué of Ivory Coast, in honor of The World Cup.

Kehinde Wiley Style and Works

Kehinde Wiley makes a statement in the world of art by combining a high degree of classic, realistic painting skill with a powerful sense of individualism and self-definition. His early portraits, and many of his current ones, were of men he saw on the street and asked to paint. He started in the areas of South Central Los Angeles and Harlem’s 125th Street (he is a New York based artist). He also travelled the world to find more inclusivity in his subjects for his series of “World Stage” paintings which he began in 2006.

His diverse subjects who are often wearing modern clothing with an urban hip-hop style are placed in poses and cultural positions of power. Instances taken from works by the “old masters” such as Rubens or Titian, they are painted larger than life with great care and in a deeply respectful light.

Artsy shares that Wiley’s intricate backgrounds are inspired by,

“textiles and decorative patterns of various cultures, from 19th-century Judaica paper cutouts to Martha Stewart’s interior color swatches.”

Wiley shared with The New York Times Style Magazine that,

“The background must capture a myriad bed of cultures and practices, because increasingly, the people who populate my paintings are from all over the world.”

Below, see an example of Wiley translating an old image that is culturally heralded as a masterpiece into his own visual language. He reinterprets “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” (1800) by Jacques-Louis David into his own “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps” (2005).

In His series, “An Economy of Grace,” Wiley began to include women in his works. African-American women were street casted and painted in poses from works by Jacques-Louis David and John Singer Sargent, and others. In a departure from the attire of his previous subjects, the models wore couture Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy gowns. With this step including females Wiley continues to disturb the surface of white male dominance in historical and contemporary art, and in his own words, says it is a way “to come to terms with depictions of gender and the way it is featured art historically–a means to broaden the conversation.”


You can currently view the exhibition, “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA through September 5, 2016. Eugenie Tsai and John and Barbara Vogelstein, Curators of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum and Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the VMFA, collaborated to curate this show. Below, view an example of Wiley’s first use of sculpture as a medium in his 2006 collaboration with Cereal Art, which is on display at VMFA.

Wiley shows us his definition and interpretation of the divine, the classic, the majestic, and the powerful. By honoring and lifting up through beautiful portrayals the people he sees around him and around the globe, he is working towards correcting the lack of diversity in art museums he remembered as a child. Wiley says on his site that “[s]o much of what I do now is a type of self-portraiture.” As a gay black American, a passionate and now successful artist, and a thoughtful individual, he shares his world visions with us and asks us to consider his point of view, in which people of many colors and cultures are given glorious standing with painstaking attention, care, and adoration.

Julia Travers


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