Kehinde Wiley - Biography and Legacy
Los Angeles, California
Biography of Kehinde Wiley
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."
For most of his childhood, he says that the family survived on welfare checks and whatever spare change was earned at his mother's thrift shop, which didn't have a sign or a retail space, only a patch of sidewalk in front of their house on West Jefferson Avenue. Everyone in the neighbourhood referred to it as 'Freddie's Store', and Wiley says it contained all sorts of things, including used books, windup record players, tarnished gold-leaf picture frames, and porcelain figurines. He recalls that he and his siblings would help their mother look for new inventory, driving around in a noisy Dodge van that backfired constantly. He says, "That was the more embarrassing part. You're 11, and you don't want to be seen jumping out to go through your neighbour's garbage. That's social death!"
At the age of 12, in 1989, Wiley was one of 50 American children who went to live in Russia at the Centre for U.S./U.S.S.R. Initiatives where he studied art and the Russian language.
His experiences growing up as a young black man in the United States would strongly influence his artistic career. He says, "I know how young black men are seen. They're boys, scared little boys oftentimes. I was one of them. I was completely afraid of the Los Angeles Police Department." He is also gay, saying, "My sexuality is not black and white. I'm a gay man who has occasionally drifted. I am not bi. I've had perfectly pleasant romances with women, but they weren't sustainable. My passion wasn't there. I would always be looking at guys."
Education and Early training
Wiley graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he had the opportunity to travel to several Los Angeles galleries. He was strongly influenced by seeing the works of Gainsborough and Constable. He earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and then received a scholarship to complete his MFA at Yale University School of Art in 2001. While at art school, he says that the most important lesson he learned was to create art that he wanted to make, not art that his professors wanted him to make.
The year that Wiley graduated from his MFA he came across a crumpled piece of paper in the streets of Harlem, which he picked up and found to be a mug shot. He started to think about the mug shot as portraiture, saying, "What is portraiture? It's choice. It's the ability to position your body in the world for the world to celebrate you on your own terms." But in a mug shot you don't have a choice about how you're presented. He went on to experiment with creating paintings based on mug shots. This process also got him thinking about whether portraiture is ever able to communicate anything deeper than the physical traits of the sitter.
Shortly after graduating from his MFA, Wiley became an Artist in Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He says, "They gave me $500 a month. I would sleep in the grounds of the museum and make my paintings. That made me the artist I am today and I want to be able to pay that forward," which is why he's now working on developing a studio in Senegal which will have its own residency program.
Art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch gave Wiley his first solo show in New York and then went on to represent him for the next ten years.
Mature Period and Current Work
Wiley is now based at his studio in Brooklyn, and also maintains studios in China and Senegal, where teams of artists work on the ornate backgrounds of his paintings before Wiley takes over to complete the figures.
Wiley's portraits are based on photographs that he takes of young men he meets on the street, mainly from Harlem's 125th Street, as well as the South Central Los Angeles neighbourhood where he grew up. He says about his "street casting" process, "I'm looking for someone who has a spirit of self-possession". He says that this process is "this serendipitous thing where I am in the streets running into people who resonate with me, whether for cultural or sexual reasons. My type is rooted in my own sexual desire." After exchanging glances with a potential candidate, Wiley approaches them and explains his art-making process, showing them some examples of his work. He says that most people turn him down, but interested parties are then invited to his studio where photographs are taken. Generally, his models are dressed in street clothes and asked to assume poses typical of the paintings of Renaissance masters. Wiley describes his approach as "interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit," and says that his figurative paintings "quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power". Wiley receives mixed feedback when his subjects view the completed portraits. Sometimes they're in tears, but sometimes they tell him "That don't look like me. That's not the way I see myself. That's not the pose that I chose." He pays his models for their participation.
VH1 commissioned Wiley to paint portraits of the honorees for the 2005 Hip Hop Honors program. In his typical style, he rendered the musicians according to historical portraits of great men, such as painting Ice T as Napoleon, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as a seventeenth-century Dutch civic guard company.
In October 2011, Wiley received the Artist of the Year Award from the New York City Art Teachers Association/United Federation of Teachers, and also received Canteen Magazine's Artist of the Year Award. Two of his paintings were featured on the top of 500 New York City taxicabs in 2011 as collaboration with the Art Production Fund.
In October 2017, it was announced that Wiley was to be commissioned to produce a portrait of former U.S. President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and the completed work was unveiled on February 12, 2018. Wiley and Amy Sherald, who painted former First Lady Michelle Obama, are the first black artists to paint official portraits of the president or First Lady for the National Portrait Gallery.
The Legacy of Kehinde Wiley
Wiley's portrait paintings have been pioneering in their use of historical Western art conventions (large scale canvases and heroic poses drawn from Old Master paintings) to portray men and women of color as powerful and worthy of appearing in galleries and museums.
Wiley is one of several contemporary black artists (like Mickalene Thomas, Xaviera Simmons, Yinka Shonibare, and Hank Willis Thomas) who are working to shift racial power imbalances reproduced by contemporary art and popular media. He says "Art is about communicating power, and it's been that way for hundreds of years. Artists have been very good at working for the church and for the state, communicating the aspirations of society. What I choose to do is take people who happen to look like me, black and brown, people all over the world increasingly, and allowing them to occupy that field of power."
Moreover, by shifting who is included as the subjects of heroic portraiture, Wiley's work has also resulted in a shift in who feels welcome within art institutions. He says, "When I have exhibitions, the people who don't belong to the typical museum demographic show up. People view themselves within the rubric of possibility."