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Did You Know? The First Black Artist To Paint An Official Portrait Of The US President Is A Nigerian

Kehinde Wiley! That’s the name. Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley was born on February 28, 1977. He is an African-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 former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which has portraits of all the U.S. presidents. The Columbus Museum of Art, which hosted an exhibition of his work in 2007, 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’s portrait of Obama was unveiled on February 12, 2018. He and Amy Sherald, whose portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama was simultaneously unveiled, are the first black artists to paint official portraits of the president or First Lady for the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley was included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018.

Early life and education

Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California. His father is a Yoruba man from Nigeria, and his mother is an African American. Wiley has a twin brother. When Wiley was a child, his mother supported his interest in art and enrolled him in after-school art classes. At the age of 11, he spent a short time at an art school in Russia. He continued with other classes in the US.

The twins were raised by their mother but their father had returned to Nigeria. Wiley travelled to Nigeria at the age of 20 to meet his father and explore his family roots there.

Wiley earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University, School of Art in 2001. Wiley became an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

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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 colour 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. Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005) is based on Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David, often regarded as a “masterpiece.” Wiley restaged it with an African rider wearing modern army fatigues and a bandanna. Wiley “investigates the perception of blackness and creates a contemporary hybrid Olympus in which tradition is invested with a new street credibility”.

Recognition and honours    

In October 2011, Wiley received the Artist of the Year Award from the New York City Art Teachers Association/United Federation of Teachers. He also received Canteen Magazine’s Artist of the Year Award. Two of Wiley’s paintings were featured on the top of 500 New York City taxi cabs in early 2011 as a collaboration with the Art Production Fund.

Wiley is featured in a commercial on the USA as a 2010 Character Honoree.

Puma AG commissioned Wiley to paint four portraits of prominent African soccer players. Patterns from his paintings were incorporated into Puma athletic gear. The complete series, Legends of Unity: World Cup 2010, was exhibited in early 2010 at Deitch Projects in New York City.

Selected solo exhibitions

  • 2006: Kehinde Wiley: Columbus at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH
  • 2006: Willem van Heythuysen at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
  • 2007: Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage—China at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI
  • 2008: Three Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos at (PAFA) Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
  • 2009: The World Stage: Africa at ArtSpace, San Antonio, TX
  • 2009: Black Light at Deitch Projects, New York City
  • 2010: Legends of Unity | World Cup 2010 | PUMA, several locations worldwide
  • 2011: Kehinde Wiley: Selected Works at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art, Savannah, GA
  • 2012: Kehinde Wiley/ The World Stage: Israel at The Jewish Museum, New York City
  • 2013: Kehinde Wiley: Memling at Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ
  • 2015–17: Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the Brooklyn Museum (2015), Brooklyn, NY; travelled to Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX (2016); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA (2016); Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA (2016); Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ (2016); Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH (2017), Oklahoma City Museum of Art (2017)
  • 2018 October 19 – February 10, 2019: Kehinde Wiley at St. Louis Museum of Art, St. Louis, MO.

His work was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Recognize exhibit in 2008. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, was a retrospective at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond, VA), in the summer of 2016 (June 11 – September 5). It displayed nearly 60 of his paintings and sculptures.

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Jeremiah Aluwong

Jeremiah is a scholar and a poet. He has a keen eye for studying the world and is passionate about people. He tweets at @jeremiahaluwong.

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