My introduction to portrait artist Kehinde Wiley was happenstance—a tag-along-type adventure with a photographer friend to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Upon entering the gallery, I was greeted by space: a labyrinth of hollowed rooms demanding silence on behalf of the stark white walls. Amid this absence, Wiley drew me in with bright colors and decadence, massive canvases and intricate regalia. I was captivated—never allowed to blink—and I loved every moment of the intake.
The Brooklyn-based artist's work is being featured in "RECOGNIZE!"— a four-part exhibition on the culture behind hip-hop music at the National Portrait Gallery until Oct. 26. There are many artists on display, each utilizing a different medium to entice their gallery-going audience. Some use graffiti, some use photography, but Kehinde lures with paint.
Using race, gender and class as his central themes, 29-year-old Wiley reforms the world of Western art—using black male subjects where white once dominated. His featured works are primarily period pieces—renaissance rivals in pose and positioning—but the style is all his own. It was this style, a veritable clash of cultures, that blossomed during Wiley's time as an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. Since 2002, Wiley, who holds an MA in fine arts from Yale University, has been featured in numerous group shows and solo exhibitions: Passing/Posing (Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 2002); Rumors of War (Deitch Projects, 2005); and Infinite Mobility (Columbus Museum of Art, 2005-06), to name a few.
Wiley's contribution to the "RECOGNIZE!" exhibit features a selection of pieces done for VH1's 2005 Hip Hop Honors, in which several iconic music artists were immortalized on canvas. MCs and musicians like LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane were transformed into figures formed and praised before their time. Politicians, lords and kings were all portrayed anew, donned in brown swagger and stoicism.
Ice-T is Napoleon off to war, spear in one hand, septer in the other. His kingly presence and puffed-up demeanor is preserved in paint as if constantly ready for battle. Except, screw it—he's Ice-T and there's no way he's messing up his fresh black Jordans with blood spatters. Let some lowly MC handle the casualties. You see, the beauty that Wiley interprets and constructs is twofold. First, there is the overall appeal of neon against beautiful brown hues; flowery borders and regalia embracing seemingly unmoved, and unapologetic, men. Then there are the details: the way Ice-T grips his septer like a Glock, the creases in LL's pants as he poses like Nelson Rockefeller, not to mention those freshly manicured fingernails. Each detail is a discovery; a dimension of wit, irony, or pathos added to the black faces so often written off by society.
Arguably, the best piece in the bunch is "Triple Portrait of Charles I." Comprised of three adjoining portraits, this particular work offers multiple views of one subject, in both a literal and figurative sense. Its inspiration came from a portrait of former King of England Charles I—a man who believed in his divine right to rule. The original, done by Sir Anthony van Dyck around 1636, was painted so that a sculptor could create a three-dimensional likeness of the king's image. Centuries later, Wiley is able to add multiple conceptual dimensions all by himself.
Every face of the new-age "Charles" has a different story to tell, a singular identity that parallels its mate. Pastel flowers embrace the boy with three faces. Bulbs and leafy regalia of orange, pink and yellow hug his maroon-and-white hoodie. Sideway stares peek out from his hood on both sides of a centered portrait where the look is dead-on and the power is absolute.
But there is more to "Charles." His bravado begins to dwindle at the fringes. The look of the left is slick yet suspicious, while the right side shows only vulnerability—weary, questioning eyes with a hint of fear.
That is the genius of Wiley's work. Everything is a contradiction. Everything is the truth. Everything is beautiful.
Q&A with Kehinde Wiley
Saaret E. Yoseph: For the hip-hop portrait series, why did you decide to focus on 18th and 19th century European portraiture?
Kehinde Wiley: Well, painting as a practice I think occupies a very important historical and social role. We have to recognize that by and large its describing all the things we value in society. [Painting] has been used as a tool to immortalize some great and revered leaders historically. It's been at the forefront, in terms of the propaganda used by the Western European cultural hegemony throughout time. And so, in that sense using 18th and 19th century work is important. I would say that using anything within the entire arc of Western painting would be fruitful. But, what I try to do is occupy that space in a way that not only embraces it, but empties it out a bit, critiques it.
SEY: How do your models react to being posed for one of your pieces?
KW: There are some models who know very well what I'm up to and know the work, whereas with others we are dealing with people who are approaching it anew. The biggest response you have to deal with is being posed for a 12-foot painting. There's something wonderful and magical about seeing someone that large. You know, I'm the one looking at it as the artist, I can only imagine what its like to look at that object when it's you. You could surmise that there's something moving about that.
SEY: When you work with famous subjects, how do you get them to drop professional personas and be more organic?
KW: I don't want an organic sense. You know, I think that the passion and the posturing and the way that people attempt to position themselves in paintings speaks directly to the ego. It speaks directly to that artificiality and artifice that is portrait painting. In fact, I don't really believe in this sort of romantic notion of purity with portrait painting. The more uncomfortable and the more contrived and the more the models try to look composed, the better for me. I think we're getting close to the point there.
SEY: For your most recent work— the World Stage series— you visited countries like China, Brazil and Senegal. How did choosing subjects in those other countries differ from your experiences in the U.S?
KW: People were more willing and more inhibited. I had to deal with some of the economic realities. If someone's offering you money to take a picture and that money represents what you would ordinarily make in a month then perhaps you're a little weirded-out by this strange foreigner, but there's a very strong motivation there. And I think in the west there's certainly a much more televisual, celebrity-ready culture. People almost feel like they're going to be discovered overnight, like 'Of course this is happening to me.' We live in a much more post-Paris Hilton generation of being stopped and being checked for a large heroic painting, like it's their birthright in some regard. You certainly don't see that in the streets of West Africa and Southeast Asia.
WANT MORE? If you love Kehinde's work, check out his peers. These artists are currently being featured in "Flow," a non-thematic exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlemwhere Kehinde was once an artist-in-residence.
The South African native paints for himself, but the gallery-going public can certainly enjoy the fruits of his aesthetic labor. Maluka's portrait pieces are reminiscent of Andy Warhol paintings, but with much more pain and social analysis and less pop culture.
In DETROITNEXUS, Dieng exposes the exploitation behind entertainment. Using mixed media pieces, Dieng deconstructs music idols Nat King Cole and Jimi Hendrix to demonstrate their struggles within the industry.
Examining his native land, Sime utilized mixed media pieces to analyze forgotten Ethiopian traditions. His detailed yarn reliefs evoke concepts of internal struggle. Though Sime's works are undoubtedly personally motivated, his pieces remain relevant to the historical progression and conflicts of most cultures.
Saaret E. Yoseph is a writer living in Washington, D.C. and editorial assistant for The Root.
Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"