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An Ode to Kehinde Wiley

An ode to Kehinde Wiley and his unique take on portraiture.

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An Ode to Kehinde Wiley
Violet Chernoff

Violet Chernoff

Date
April 26, 2024
Read
4 Minutes

No one does portraiture quite like Kehinde Wiley. At twelve-years-old, he enrolled in an art exchange program in Russia. He cultivated an early interest in painting and graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. By the age of twenty four, he had discovered his creative niche of reimagining portraiture; his early series Conspicuous Fraud was inspired by a New York City Police Department mug shot of a Black man. He came upon the image, randomly, during his residence in Harlem, and his painting style was forever changed.

Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), 2001. (Image: Studio Museum in Harlem Collection).

Wiley is known for his relatively colorful and realistic depictions of his subjects. Mostly men, they stand in the foreground of his paintings, often glaring directly out of the canvas. From flowers to clouds to wallpaper-esque patterns, his backgrounds are notably vibrant without stealing the attention from the foregrounded figure; the chaos serves to draw your eyes even more noticeably to the human subjects of the paintings. This visually enigmatic phenomenon is one of the many reasons I am captivated by Wiley. Other reasons include: his reliance on street casting for models, his love of casual hip-hop attire, and his subversion of white, traditionalist portraiture norms.

Wiley famously mimics Old Master paintings, replacing their white subjects with Black men—and, as of 2012, with Black women too. He evokes the work of 17th-century painters, like Sir Anthony van Dyck, but, essentially, makes it far less stagnant and predictable. What is notable, though, is that these historic painting styles—though modified and modernized—remain visible in Wiley’s rebellion. His work is, in short, a modern reclaiming of traditional portraiture, which excluded African American subjects.

In January, I was walking through an exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum called Spike Lee: Creative Sources. It showcased the very renowned and somewhat controversial American film director Spike Lee’s extensive personal collection of paintings, movie posters, letters, signed Knicks tickets, and more. But even among customized Air Jordans, Basquiats, and signed letters from Angela Davis, I was drawn to the massive Kehinde Wiley portrait in the fifth room. My personal favorite of his portraits is entitled Investiture of Bishop Harold as the Duke of Franconia (2005). It is an original piece, commissioned by Spike Lee, of a Black man wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey. The references are numerous; the jersey number, 42, is a nod to Jackie Robinson, and the jersey itself is a reference to Lee’s 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, in which the main character, Mookie, repeatedly dons a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey. Fun fact: Mookie is actually played by Lee, who acts in a handful of his own movies.

Official Portrait of President Obama, 2018. (Image: Kehinde Wiley Studio) 

Though we have covered my favorite painting, no Kehinde Wiley article would be complete without a mention of his most well-known portrait. In 2018, Wiley was commissioned to paint Barack Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. He garnered incessant praise and immediate notoriety, partially because his portrait was the first painting of and by an African American man to be housed in the National Portrait Gallery. Unlike its plain and immensely traditional counterparts, the portrait is abundantly vibrant. Its floral background is an ode to Obama’s heritage, as it incorporates flowers from Kenya, Hawaii, and Chicago. It is distinctly Wileyian in style, and it will go down as one of the most beloved—or, frankly, the most beloved—presidential portraits in history. And Kehinde will go down as a stylistically distinct artist whose portraits bring Black men and women, donning hip hop attire and standing against chaotic backgrounds, into galleries all over the country.

Cover Image: Investiture of Bishop Harold as the Duke of Franconia, 2005. (Image courtesy of author)

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