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Kehinde Wiley

American Painter

Kehinde Wiley Photo
Movements and Styles: Identity Politics, Queer Art

Born: 1977 - Los Angeles, California

"My work is not about paint. It's about paint at the service of something else. It is not about gooey, chest-beating, macho '50s abstraction that allows paint to sit up on the surface as subject matter about paint."

Summary of Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is a young, African-American painter who is quite literally changing the face(s) of portraiture with his sensitive, vibrant, and political portrayals of black folk, ranging from teenagers he meets on the streets, to fellow contemporary artists, and even former President Barack Obama.

Wiley made a name for himself for his naturalistic, brightly colored portraits of young black men, often with dramatic flowery backgrounds. With black masculinity often framed as synonymous with fear and violence in the USA, his generous and vibrant portraits challenge viewers' preconceptions of their subjects and bring young men, and people, of color into the galleries and museums they are so woefully underrepresented in.

Key Ideas

Wiley's work falls into the category of Identity Politics, which is art, film, and writing, which deals primarily with aspects of the artist's identity, for example race, gender, and sexuality. It is vitally important to Wiley that black people, especially black American men, are both the subjects and the audience of his paintings. At a time when young black men are constantly vilified in the press and mainstream media, and even murdered on the street by racist policemen, Wiley's portraits are an essential document of the power, fashion, versatility and beauty of the black community in the USA.
Wiley talks about portraiture and the "field of power", referring to the way that painted portraits of people indicates that they are powerful, but also that portraits hold the potential to give power to those who are painted in this way, turning traditional portrait painting upside down.
In 1975, Laura Mulvey put forward the idea of the "male gaze", that images of women are produced to be static objects for men to look at. bell hooks challenged Mulvey by pointing out that race was totally absent from Mulvey's argument and that black men are excluded (in that they are punished for looking at white women) as well as black women (in that they are never beautiful enough to be objects of desire). bell hooks put forward the idea of the "oppositional gaze" where black subjects interrupt white looks, and thus white power. Wiley's subjects often embody this oppositional gaze, and successfully challenge comfortable white modes of looking and being looked at, in a way that is unique and hugely important in decolonizing the Western art canon.
Wiley often appropriates, or re-uses, recognizable art history images and tropes, such as portraits of Napoleon, heroic sea paintings, and traditional nudes. He does this as a way to critique art historical norms - the way we almost only see white people painted by other white people when we look at painting - and to use pre-existing tools to elevate black folk to the important positions inhabited by these white people of art history.
As a gay black man, it is important for Wiley to reposition black male bodies as objects of desire, eroticism, and vulnerability, as opposed to fear, strength and violence. Black gay men are often doubly victimised in society, and Wiley's purposeful queering of recognizable images; his use of flowers; and camp, playful portraits are all important contributions to what queer black art can look like in America, and the importance of blackness to queerness, and visa versa.
Kehinde Wiley Photo

Kehinde Wiley was born and grew up in South-central Los Angeles with an African-American mother, Freddie Mae Wiley, and a Yoruba father from Nigeria, Isaiah D. Obot, who came to the United States as a scholarship student and then returned to Africa after finishing his studies, leaving Wiley's mother to raise their six children. When Wiley was a child, his mother recognized his artistic talent, saying that he could reproduce anything he saw by drawing, and she enrolled him and his twin brother in after-school art classes at the age of 11. Wiley says, "She wanted us to stay away from gang culture; the sense that most of my peers would end up either dead or in prison was a very real thing. So we were on buses doing five-hour round trips every weekend to go study art. That was a huge pain in the ass. My brother ended up in love with medicine and literature and business - he's in real estate and finance now. But me, I really got the art bug."

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