Artist Feature: Kehinde Wiley Artist Feature: Kehinde Wiley
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Artist Feature: Kehinde Wiley

Artist Feature: Kehinde Wiley

Written by:
Wendy Bonham-Carter
Aug 08, 2023

Introducing Kehinde Wiley: Reimagining Art’s Legacy

Bold, innovative, and unapologetic, Kehinde Wiley breathes new life into the world of portraiture. Born in 1977, this remarkable artist challenges traditional norms by inserting black Americans into the historically whitewashed canvases of Old Masters paintings. Through his brush strokes, he transforms ordinary individuals and cultural icons alike into royalty, nobility, and fierce military heroes. One of his most renowned works includes the commissioned portrait of President Obama for the National Portrait Gallery in 2017, a groundbreaking moment in art history.

Wiley’s artistic journey began in Los Angeles, where his mother’s support nurtured his passion for art. From early art classes to a conservatory in Russia, he honed his skills in portraiture. Later, his travels to Nigeria sought to connect with his family and cultural heritage. These diverse experiences infuse his work with a deep understanding of both Western and non-Western art history, giving him the freedom to challenge assumptions and play with symbolism.

In Wiley’s world, the subjects wear an eclectic mix of attire, from modern streetwear to ceremonial outfits and cultural attire. They wield swords, scepters, or ride horses, creating a new narrative of power that combines style, swagger, and an arresting gaze that captivates the viewer.

Join us as we delve into the captivating world of Kehinde Wiley, an artist who fearlessly reshapes the canvas of history.

Kehinde Wiley

Born: 1977 

“Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them.”

Kehinde Wiley’s bold portraiture remakes the legacy of Old Masters paintings, inserting black Americans into the whitewashed canon of these images. He plays with visual conventions, remixing, and switching up expectations. Wiley paints regular people and well-known cultural figures alike, reimagining them as royalty, nobility, or fearsome military heroes. He’s most well-known for his commissioned portrait of President Obama in 2017 for the National Portrait Gallery, where his portrait and Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama were the first pieces by black artists to be included. 

Wiley was born in Los Angeles, and grew up with five siblings and his mother. His mother supported his passion for art from a young age, sending his twin brother and him to after-school art classes. They were selected to study at a conservatory in Russia at a young age, where Wiley first got introduced to portraiture. At home, his mother struggled to make ends meet, and Wiley was influenced by her tireless ingenuity. He got his BFA at San Francisco Art Institute, and his MFA at Yale, before securing a residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, NYC. He traveled to visit his father in Nigeria in his early 20s, hoping to establish a connection with his family and cultural background there. 

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Kehinde Wiley’s diverse pastiche points to his deep familiarity with art history, both Western and non-Western, which allows him the leeway to play so freely with assumptions and symbolism. He appropriates elements of a source work, as in his Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, based on Jacques-Louis David’s original 19th-century work, while tweaking the way that power is conferred on the portrait’s subject. In Wiley’s paintings, the sitters wear basketball jerseys, puffer jackets, baseball caps, ceremonial outfits, kente cloth, bodysuits, or graphic t-shirts. They’re modern and not, sometimes carrying swords and scepters, or riding into battle on a horse. Wiley provides a new answer to the Old Masters’ version of power, adding in style, swagger, and a bold stare that ensnares the viewer. 

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In collaboration with Kat Sampson, we present The Not Just Dead White Guys coloring book with 24 vibrant portraits, showcasing influential artists from various eras and continents. Half are contemporary artists, including Kehinde Wiley, who are shaping the art scene today, while the others are important historical figures. Join us to celebrate their diverse contributions and create a more inclusive art world!

Written by:
Wendy Bonham-Carter
Aug 08, 2023