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Kehinde Wiley

Artist 146 Kehinde Wiley Racial Identity in American culture Portrait Painting

Kehinde Wiley (born 1977) is an American portrait painter based in New York City, who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of black people.

He was commissioned in 2017 to paint a portrait of President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian, which has portraits of all the US presidents.

Columbus Museum of Art describes his work as follows: "Wiley has gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture.”

Wiley often references Old Masters paintings for the pose of a figure. Wiley's paintings often blur the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation.

Rendering his figures in a realistic mode—while making references to specific Old Master paintings—Wiley creates a fusion of period styles and influences, ranging from French Rococo, Islamic architecture, and West African textile design, to urban hip hop and the "Sea Foam Green" of a Martha Stewart Interiors color swatch.

Wiley depicts his slightly larger than life-size figures in a heroic manner, giving them poses that connote power and spiritual awakening. Wiley's portrayal of masculinity is filtered through these poses of power and spirituality.

His portraits are based on photographs of young men whom Wiley sees on the street. He has painted men from Harlem’s 125th street, as well as the South Central Central Los Angeles neighborhood where he was born.

Dressed in street clothes, his models were asked to assume poses from the paintings of Renaissance masters.

Wiley describes his approach as "interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit". His figurative paintings "quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power".

In this manner, his paintings fuse history and style in a unique and contemporary manner. His art has been described as having homoerotic qualities. Wiley has used a sperm motif as symbolic of masculinity and gender.

Without shying away from the complicated socio-political histories relevant to the world, Wiley’s figurative paintings and sculptures “quote historical sources and position young black men within the field of power.” His heroic paintings evoke a modern style instilling a unique and contemporary manner, awakening complex issues that many would prefer remain mute.


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