- Artist who takes Old Master paintings and inserts black characters to replace white heroic figures
- Barack Obama personally selected Wiley to paint Obama's official portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2017
Kehinde Wiley was born on February 28, 1977 in Los Angeles, where he was one of six siblings and was raised by a single mother. His father, Isiah Obot, was a native Nigerian who had come to the United States earlier in the Seventies to study architecture at UCLA, where he met Wiley’s mother. But Obot left the family before Wiley was born. At age 11, Wiley took art classes at a California State University conservatory, and when he was 12 he traveled to Leningrad to participate in a six-week art and Russian-language program sponsored by the Center for U.S./U.S.S.R. Initiatives. When he was about 20 years old, Wiley came out publicly as a homosexual. In 1999 he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2001 he received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Yale University’s School of Art. Upon completing his formal education, Wiley took a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.
In the “Passing/Posing” series of paintings that Wiley produced from 2001-04, which are widely regarded as his breakthrough works, he replicated a number of Old Master creations but inserted – in place of the heroes, prophets, and saints who were depicted in the originals – young black men attired in modern-day hip-hop garb. Wiley has continued this practice throughout his career as an artist. He also typically engages in “street casting” – i.e., using black people whom he encounters randomly while walking in various places, as models for the figures he inserts into his paintings.
Brittanica.com states that in his 2005 series, “Rumors of War,” Wiley “displaced heroic equestrians, painted by such court painters as Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens, with contemporary men in team jerseys and Timberland boots, but he kept the original portraits’ titles.” In his “Down” series of 2006-08, black characters were depicted in the same postures as the dead and dying figures in such original works as Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Dead Christ in the Tomb and Auguste Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Serpent. Wiley’s 2009 “Black Light” series featured blown-up photographs of black characters instead of painted figures. And his “World Stage” series (2007-13) featured depictions of dark-skinned men from such far-flung nations as Brazil, Senegal, Nigeria, India, Israel, Jamaica, France, and China.
Early in his carer as an artist, Wiley was based primarily in New York City. In 2006 he opened up an auxiliary studio on the outskirts of Beijing, China. When Wiley subsequently engaged in a five-year relationship with a male disc jockey there, the Beijing studio served as both his principal workplace and a second home.
In a 2012 profile of Wiley, New York magazine contributor Christopher Beam writes that the artist’s “decision to paint,” for instance, “an anonymous black man (or Ice T) posing like Napoleon” not only “constitute[s] an act of social justice that gives African-Americans their rightful place in the Western pantheon,” but also serves as “a mockery of the pantheon itself and anyone who would wish to be in or buy into it.”
In 2012 Wiley created a pair of paintings titled Judith Beheading Holofernes, both of which portray a scene from from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, where Judith decapitates an Assyrian general. In both of Wiley’s depictions, which are based on Renaissance works by Caravaggio and Gentileschi, Judith is shown as a knife-bearing black woman holding the severed head of a white woman. “It’s sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing,” Wiley said in a 2012 interview with New York Magazine.
In 2017, former U.S. President Barack Obama personally selected Wiley to paint his official portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, making Wiley the first African-American ever to be commissioned for that purpose. (Click here to view this painting.)
Beyond the National Portrait Gallery, Wiley’s art is also on display at such places as the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. To view several dozen examples of Wiley’s work, click here.
Wiley currently has a net worth of approximately $5 million.