Kehinde Wiley: Redefining Portraiture Through Symbolism and Subversion

A portrait by Kehinde Wiley showing a young man wearing a puffer jacket, set against a light blue background with yellow motifs around the figure.Passing/Posing © Kehinde Wiley 2003
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Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley

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Who is deserving of being portrayed and celebrated in art? Kehinde Wiley answers this through his contemporary compositions that present a modern interpretation of classical portraiture. His work exposes the bias embedded in the canon and cultivates a space where black people are no longer confined to the periphery but instead are rightfully placed at the centre of the artistic narrative.

Kehinde Wiley’s The Two Sisters. Two black women standing next to each other, interlocking arms. They are dressed in long white gowns against a black background with floral arrangements.Image © Brooklyn Museum / The Two Sisters © Kehinde Wiley 2012

Kehinde Wiley: A Trailblazer in Contemporary Art

Kehinde Wiley, born in Los Angeles, California in 1977 and raised in South Central, is a renowned artist known for his large-scale oil paintings. He obtained his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and his MFA from Yale University. Wiley's artistic prowess lies in his ability to depict African American men and women in heroic poses, dressed in contemporary attire. By reimagining traditional poses that historically perpetuated power imbalances and exclusivity, Wiley empowers his subjects and challenges conventional ideas of representation.

Wiley breathes life into his dynamic compositions, infusing them with energy and vitality. He captures the essence of his subjects' strength and resilience, creating a visual narrative that extends beyond aesthetics; it serves as a potent vehicle for social commentary. Deliberately selecting subject matter that addresses issues of race, gender, masculinity, and power dynamics, he sparks thought-provoking conversations and challenges societal norms.

The artist draws inspiration from a diverse range of artistic influences, particularly from the Old Masters of European art. He models his work after iconic painters such as Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and Jacques-Louis David, integrating their traditional techniques and compositional elements into his contemporary portrayals. By recontextualising historical painting styles within the context of modern society, Wiley creates a dialogue where the past and the present meet.

"You throw yourself into moments of fear, and on the other side of it—if you survive—are the rewards."
Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley's Approach to Portraiture

Historical Reference

Wiley's practice often involves creating contemporary renditions of classical works, drawing inspiration from renowned paintings of his predecessors. This approach is crucial to his artistic practice as it allows him to engage in a dialogue with art history while recontextualizing historical narratives. By referencing iconic compositions and poses from classical works, Wiley establishes a visual connection between the present and the past. Through his reinterpretations, he disrupts and challenges the exclusivity of historical portraiture, offering a fresh perspective on representation and power dynamics.

Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Andries Stilte. A black man holding a cane with the other hand on his hip. He is in front of purple French Rococo style background with a gold sun above his head. Image © Seattle Art Museum / Portrait of Andries Stilte © Kehinde Wiley 2006

Wiley's paintings command attention and create a captivating presence. The large scale of his portraits immerses viewers in the grandeur of his subjects. This deliberate choice not only pays homage to the historical tradition of monumental portraiture but also emphasises the significance and importance of his contemporary subjects. Wiley's mastery of size and scale connects his work to the legacy of the Old Masters, while  reimagining and revitalising the genre for a modern audience.

Unconventional Canvases

Opulent patterns, beautifully saturated hues, and lush floral arrangements are key features of Wiley’s work. These striking visuals are more than just decorative elements, they play a crucial role in the composition and storytelling behind his art.

Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Hussein Obama. A presidential portrait of Barack Obama set against a bright green background of foliage.Image © National Portrait Gallery / Barack Hussein Obama © Kehinde Wiley 2018

The richness of these backgrounds provides a vivid contrast to the traditional landscapes we see featured in traditional, European portraiture. Instead of serene, pastoral settings or symbolic backdrops, Wiley employs bold colours and foliage that provide a sense of vitality and natural beauty. In the case of Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, the artist used chrysanthemums, jasmine, and African blue lilies to represent the cultural heritage and connection his subject had to them.

Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading The Army Over The Alps. A man riding a horse pointing forward against a red, decorative backgroundImage © Brooklyn Museum / Napoleon Leading The Army Over The Alps © Kehinde Wiley 2005

Incorporating ornate patterns and designs influenced by Baroque and Islamic architecture, adds intricate layers to Wiley’s compositions. These details introduce a sense of complexity and depth, while simultaneously challenging the viewer's understanding of traditional portraiture. His placement of subjects against these motifs initiate a conversation between art history and contemporary design. In Napoleon Leading The Army Over The Alps, we see Wiley’s rendition of Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing The Alps. While the stone on the ground and its engravings remain, the rest of the landscape has been reinvisioned with a red background with a decorative pattern, referencing his French Rococo inspirations. While this particular painting touches on the complexity of masculinity, identity and power, it stands to reflect the artist’s approach of challenging European aesthetics.

Wiley’s vivid palette brings a refreshing, excited quality to a discipline that is often dominated by conventional methods and muted colours. The artist is able to visually wake up portraiture and revitalise it with his use of colour, flora and pattern in a way that engages audiences to experience art in a totally new, expressive way.

Reimagining the Canon through contemporary subjects

Wiley's use of colour becomes even more compelling when viewed in the context of the historical representation of black individuals in portraiture. Throughout history, black subjects were often relegated to subservient or exoticized roles. Wiley positions his subjects in settings where they are adorned with elaborate backgrounds, removing any suspicion of their belonging. Instead, the artist opts to present his subjects through a lens of regality and self-assurance.

Kehinde Wiley’s Two Heroic Sisters of the Grassland. Two black men standing beside one another with one hand raised open on their forehead, and the other hand on the side of their bodies. One wears a yellow shirt, the other  white tank top in front of an ornate blue patterned background.Image © Brooklyn Museum / Two Heroic Sisters of the Grassland © Kehinde Wiley 2011

We can see a dialogue between past and present in how he dresses and styles his subjects in contemporary clothing. While some of his portraits provide a more modern approach to the traditional garb of the 18th century, his art more commonly includes popular streetwear attire, Timberland boots, and casual tank tops. Incorporating these style choices dismantles the belief that historical European styles are the epitome of sophistication.

Substituting historical figures with individuals from present-day society allows Wiley to disrupt the hierarchy of power and authority embedded within Western art. His reimagining prompts critical questions about who is appropriate to be depicted and celebrated in art, and whose stories are deemed worthy of recognition.

Contextual Juxtaposition

Kehinde Wiley's deliberate choice to place black male bodies against soft, opulent, and lavish backgrounds serves to communicate their rightful place in society, challenging societal perceptions of black men. This contextual juxtaposition may not be immediately apparent but carries significant meaning. In Western culture, black men have historically faced a complex perception, being simultaneously viewed as both inferior and threatening. However, by positioning them within such rich, beautiful, and gentle environments, Wiley disrupts the historical associations between black male bodies and negative stereotypes. The contrast between the backgrounds and the empowered, confident, and regal portrayal of his subjects confronts the audience with the contradiction between societal narratives and the inherent dignity displayed by Wiley's subjects. This deliberate choice encourages viewers to reevaluate their assumptions and biases regarding black identity.

Kehinde Wiley’s Femme Piquée Par Un Serpent. A man laying down in a bed surrounded by flowers dressed in streetwear.Image © Detroit Institute of Arts Museum / Femme Piquée Par Un Serpent © Kehinde Wiley 2008

His work grants agency and visibility to a historically marginalised group that has made significant contributions to society, despite enduring contempt and prejudice. Wiley's art reclaims the visual language of authority and prestige, emphasising the importance of recognizing and valuing the contributions of all individuals, transcending boundaries of race or any other societal construct.

Kehinde Wiley’s The Officer Of Hussars. A figurative painting of a man riding a horse against a red elaborate background.Image © Detroit Institute of Arts Museum / The Officer Of Hussars © Kehinde Wiley 2007

A Closer Look at Officer of the Hussars

If there’s a single painting to reference in order to help understand the artist’s work, it might have to be Wiley’s Officer Of The Hussars.

This portrait perfectly illustrates Wiley’s style, visual dialogue and technique in this body of work. Originally inspired by Théodore Géricault’s Officer Of The Chasseurs Commanding A Charge, this painting hosts a crowd of details that reflect the influence of its source material among its contemporary composition. One of the most immediate differences at first glance is the red Rococo style backdrop in lieu of the traditional grey battlefield. The only remnants of the historical battle that remain in the background are the minute details of a canon in the lower right hand quadrant. Wiley keeps elements like the horse’s heightened emotional response and eclectic, leopard skin design.

While the subject is positioned in the same pose, his facial expression holds a deliberate gaze at the viewer with a clear undertone of certainty in his authority and command over his settings, opposed to the original portrait where the subject’s focus is on his surrounding environment.

Wiley's subversion of portraiture is brilliantly executed through his incorporation of contemporary fashion in the work. His subject is seen wearing attire that would be common in an everyday wardrobe based on popular street wear– a tank top, Timberland boots, and jeans. By utilising style in this way, the artist introduces a sense of relatability and familiarity to his subjects. It’s also important to note the purple jacket paired with this outfit given its symbolic representation of royalty and nobility.

The painting prompts a critical examination of the intersecting themes of race, identity, and power dynamics. Wiley's selection of a military officer as the subject raises questions about the complex relationship between African-Americans and institutionalised power structures historically dominated by white elites. By reimagining the officer as a black man, Wiley challenges the historical erasure of black contributions to the military and disrupts the traditional narrative of honour and valour.

This work provides a simultaneous critique of the power structures it portrays by directly addressing and challenging the negative associations often linked to masculinity and displays of power within a societal context. Wiley confronts the entrenched stereotypes and harmful effects that have historically been associated with traditional notions of masculinity and the exercise of power. He takes aim at the rigid expectations and limited definitions of masculinity that perpetuate harmful ideals and contribute to societal inequalities.

Wiley's critique of power structures here is multifaceted. He not only addresses the societal context in which masculinity and displays of power are often negatively associated but also offers a compelling alternative narrative that emphasises the need for a more inclusive and egalitarian understanding of power.

Kehinde Wiley’s Randerson Romulado Cordeiro. A macro portrait of a boy with blonde hair and a baseball cap in black, wearing a red tank top in front of a floral background with the same flowers in front of him, on his shirt.Image © Seattle Art Museum / Randerson Romulado Cordeiro © Kehinde Wiley 2008

The Legacy of Kehinde Wiley: Influence and Impact

Wiley's ability to seamlessly blend classical techniques with contemporary subjects has expanded the boundaries of portraiture. His mastery of composition has created a unique visual language that encourages artists to explore new avenues of expression and reimagine the possibilities of representation. Beyond the art world, Wiley's work sparks critical conversations about race, identity, and representation. By portraying marginalised individuals as powerful and beautiful figures, he challenges the historical exclusion of underrepresented groups in Western art. His audacious, lush canvases confront viewers with the beauty and complexity of diverse experiences, urging a reevaluation of societal narratives and the dismantling of stereotypes in portraiture. In Wiley's hands, art becomes a vehicle for social change. His legacy reminds us of the transformative power of art to shape perceptions, spark dialogue, and foster empathy. As we reflect on his impact, we are compelled to embrace the richness of diversity, confront biases, and strive for a more inclusive artistic landscape.