Kehinde Wiley has become a household name in the world of contemporary art. At the age of just 46, Wiley has become an era-defining contemporary artist whose unique style and powerful portraits have captured the imaginations of millions around the world. Blending classical influences with Black representation and social commentary, Wiley's art challenges conventions and sparks dialogue. Through these snippets from the artist's impressive career, we’ll unveil Wiley's artistic journey, from his classical education in art history to his collaborations with luxury brands. From Los Angeles to Lagos; classics to contemporaries; Harlem to the White House—Wiley’s art transcends boundaries. He commands a challenge to the canon and fosters cultural dialogue.
Kehinde Wiley's art journey began with a classical education in art history, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute and then a Master of Fine Arts at the School of Art at Yale University. From Yale, Wiley secured a prestigious artist residency at Studio Museum in Harlem where he further equipped himself with a deep understanding of artistic traditions, techniques, and styles. Drawing inspiration from the masters of art, he reinterprets classical art forms to subvert traditional notions of power and representation.
Kehinde Wiley employs a unique approach to selecting his subjects—he street casts them. Rather than using professional models, he ventures into urban communities, engaging with individuals who embody the essence of his artistic vision. This street casting process allows Wiley to capture the rawness and diversity of real people, elevating them to the status and power traditionally reserved for white aristocratic figures in art history.
A significant milestone in Kehinde Wiley's career came when he was commissioned to paint the official portrait of President Barack Obama. This historic portrait—unveiled at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery—defied traditional presidential portraiture conventions. Wiley's distinct style, with vibrant colours and intricate patterns, brought contemporary energy to the depiction of a U.S. president. The portrait not only captured President Obama's likeness but also celebrated his cultural heritage and his groundbreaking presidency.
This historic achievement propelled Wiley into the global spotlight, solidifying his position as a trailblazing artist as the joint-first African American painter (alongside Amy Sherald for the First Lady, Michelle Obama’s portrait) to be commissioned for a presidential portrait.
Kehinde Wiley's artistic influence transcends borders, resonating from Los Angeles to Lagos and beyond. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles during the 1990s, the young Wiley was engaged with the emergent hip-hop scene and urban culture of the sprawling city around him. Later becoming exposed to classical art through his academic training, Wiley developed an eclectic mix of influences that would later become a hallmark of his unique artistic style.
Having made his mark with his early works, Wiley’s portraiture has taken on a global element. The artist’s longest-standing project is titled The World Stage, an endeavour that has seen him paint people from Lagos to Dakar, as well as Brazil, Haiti and Jamaica (to name a few). These portraits celebrate global diversity, the African diaspora, and the specific cultural histories of each nation. Whether it's in the bustling urban landscapes of Los Angeles or the vibrant streets of Lagos, Wiley's art has the power to inspire, challenge, and unite people from different corners of the world.
Beyond the realm of fine art, Kehinde Wiley has extended his creative prowess into the world of fashion. For An Economy of Grace, his first series focussing solely on women, the artist collaborated with Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, who created custom gowns for each of Wiley’s models. The resulting paintings feature each of these gowns, infusing the paintings with grandeur that matches the classical works they reference.
Wiley has also collaborated with high-street brands such as Puma and has even released his own fashion and lifestyle line featuring designs from his paintings. From clothing collections to accessories, his artistic vision offers a captivating take on the fashion world.
Kehinde Wiley's art is a masterful blend of reinterpretation and homage to the great masters of art history. Drawing inspiration from renowned painters like Titian, Velázquez, and Ingres, he incorporates their compositional elements and poses into his contemporary portraits. By reimagining these iconic works, Wiley breathes new life into classical art, infusing it with his distinctive personal style and making it a canvas for Black representation.
Through his reinterpretations, Wiley challenges traditional power dynamics and expands the narratives of historically marginalised groups. His ability to pay homage to the masters while creating a distinct artistic identity demonstrates his deep appreciation for art history and his innovative approach to engaging with the past in the context of the present.
Kehinde Wiley's art is informed by anti-racist activism and, in turn, sparks critical conversations. Through his powerful portraits, he challenges societal norms, disrupts stereotypes, and advocates for inclusivity and representation. Wiley's subjects, often Black and mixed-race individuals who are street cast by the artist, are depicted in positions of power and influence that have historically been reserved for white European elites.
By placing these individuals in majestic settings and infusing their portraits with symbolism, Wiley confronts issues of race, identity, and power dynamics. His art becomes a catalyst for social change, encouraging viewers to question structures of power and engage in discussions around representation, equality, and justice. To that end, Wiley’s ongoing exhibition, An Archaeology of Silence continues to engage with the history of colonialism and racialised hierarchies in America and beyond. Fusing the visual vocabulary of the fallen hero with contemporary aesthetics, the series powerfully connects historical racialised injustice with a grim ongoing reality.
Kehinde Wiley's work has been exhibited all over the world, solidifying his position as a prominent figure in an evermore globalised art landscape. From solo exhibitions in major cities like New York, London, and Paris, to participation in prestigious art biennials and group shows, Wiley's art has continued to captivate viewers. The global reach of his exhibitions not only reflects the universality of his themes but also highlights the immense impact his work has had on the contemporary art scene. Within it, Wiley's exhibitions serve as platforms for dialogue, fostering conversations around representation, cultural identity, and the power of art as a catalyst for change.
Through prints and editions, fans of Wiley’s paintings can get a piece of original work at a slightly lower price point. His limited editions, meticulously crafted to retain the essence of his original works, have become highly sought after. While Wiley’s record work, The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia (2010) sold for £ 482,482 (fees included) at Sotheby’s in November 2021, his prints sell anywhere from the thousands to tens of thousands.
Collectors recognise the value of owning a piece of Wiley's art, which resonates for its visual appeal but also its cultural significance and artistic innovation. As a result, his prints and paintings command significant prices at auctions and regularly exceed their estimates, reflecting the enduring demand and appreciation for his work.
Kehinde Wiley's impact on contemporary art is far-reaching, and he has already crafted a profound and lasting legacy. His innovative approach to portrait painting—blending classical art techniques with contemporary aesthetics and questioning historical power structures—speaks to the influence of a new generation of artists reshaping the artistic landscape.
Wiley has been a pioneer and advocates for Black artists in contemporary art, establishing his artistic residency ‘Black Rock’ in Dakar in 2019. Drawing inspiration from his early-career residency in Harlem, the residency is open to any artist making work that engages with Africa. Past residents, known as the Black Rock 40, put on a high-profile group exhibition at the Douta Seck culture centre in downtown Dakar last year.
Through his art, Wiley has opened doors, challenged norms, and elevated underrepresented voices. His pioneering spirit continues to inspire and shape the future of art, leaving an indelible mark on the artistic community and the wider world.
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