From South Central To The White House: Kehinde Wiley's Inspiring Artistic Journey

A muscular young man in a limp pose on a bed with his arm hanging down, covered only in the pelvic region by sheets. His eyes are closed and his other hand rests on his stomach. In the background, many green leaves wind around the bed in the foreground.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Sleep © Kehinde Wiley 2008
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In the varied and vivid landscape of contemporary art, few artists possess the power to captivate and challenge so profoundly as Kehinde Wiley. Born and raised in the vibrant but troubled community of 1990s South Central Los Angeles, Wiley's journey as an artist has taken him far beyond the boundaries of his humble beginnings. With an unwavering commitment to  Black voices and stories, Wiley subverts traditional notions of power and representation through his inimitable portraiture that combines majesty with an uncompromising sense of individuality. Forging an unlikely path from the streets of South Central to the hallowed halls of the White House, Wiley’s artistic evolution has been nothing short of extraordinary.

”There have been moments in which black bodies have been pictured in western painting, but the intention is radically different (...) I think you can feel how I feel about the people in my paintings by looking at the paintings.’’
Kehinde Wiley
A young man poses wearing a pale pink durag, a dark purple t-shirt and a pink hoodie. His jewellery is a silver chain with a scorpion charm and a simple silver bangle, as well as stud earrings. The background behind him is blue and floral, with continuous branches.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Tomb Of Pope Alexander VII Study I © Kehinde Wiley 2008

The Making of a Modern Great: Kehinde Wiley’s Early Life and Career

“I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and it was during the eighties and nineties when a lot of the gang warfare was going on. It was a very beautiful and terrible time.” For Kehinde Wiley, roots in a culturally rich, yet socially marginalised community would come to form the basis of an artistic ethos that has reinvented the modern practice of portraiture. The path from his childhood neighbourhood to some of the world’s most prestigious galleries was far from straight; instead, it is a story of remarkable talent, dedication and will.

Raised by his mother, a second-hand book seller, Wiley was early to exhibit a natural inclination towards creativity. Surrounded by the frenetic energy and diverse visual tapestry of his surroundings, the young Wiley found solace and inspiration in the transformative power of art. However, it was not just the bustling streets that ignited his passion; it was also the stories of the individuals who inhabited those streets—their struggles, resilience, and unyielding spirit.

Wiley's exposure to art began with his mother's commitment to nurturing his creative abilities. Recognising his talent, she enrolled him in art classes at the age of 11, providing him with a supportive environment where his artistic skills could flourish. His peers and tutors were quick to take note of his natural gift, and he soon attracted the attention of prestigious art education institutes. At the age of 12, he attended a Russian art camp in the Soviet Union, suddenly revealing an approach and style of art that drastically broadened the young Wiley’s artistic vocabulary. Going to sites such as the Hermitage and the Winter Palace also introduced Wiley to new artistic forms, exposing him to Iconic Paintings for the first time.

As Wiley honed his artistic skills, his influences expanded beyond pop culture and his immediate environment. Having decided he wanted to pursue further study, Wiley set up his first gallery in his hometown of South Central Los Angeles in California to exhibit his early works. By selling these paintings to his family and peers, Wiley was able to raise the funds to see him through the initial years of university.

A painted mugshot of a young man. Wearing a white vest and beaded necklaces, he looks directly at the camera. A line of numbers, presumably a case number, is underneath his portrait.Image © The Sender Collection New York Via NPR / Mugshot Study © Kehinde Wiley 2006

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, Wiley was exposed to works by the canonical figures in art history, including the unparalleled paintings of Renaissance master Titian; the timeless depictions of French Neoclassical painter, Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres; and the opulent and dynamic scenes in the work of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. Taking a particular interest in the portraits painted by Old Masters, Wiley became concerned with the lack of Black representation within this cultural realm depicting historical influence and power. Simultaneously engaged with the Hip Hop and urban culture of New York and Los Angeles around him, this eclectic mix of influences would later become a hallmark of his unique artistic style.

Out of Yale, Wiley secured a prestigious artist residency at Studio Museum in Harlem. Featuring in two exhibitions entitled ”Ironic Iconic’’ and ”Black Romantic’’, Wiley’s work quickly gained a new level of visibility. Stumbling across a mugshot of a young Black on the streets of Harlem, Wiley was inspired to explore notions of subjectivity, agency and Black masculine identity—themes that would come to define his now-renowned body of work. With his vivid and personal paintings of Black men in police mugshots, Wiley had unearthed his incisive artistic voice.

A young man looks directly at the viewer; he wears a lime green hoodie and has his hands in his pockets. The brown wallpaper behind him is adorned with an intricate, regal pattern.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Passing / Posing #12 © Kehinde Wiley 2002

Reimagining Portraiture: Kehinde Wiley's Artistic Style, Inspirations and Muses

At the heart of Wiley's art lies a distinctive style that fuses the classical with the contemporary. Centring on majestic depictions of Black men and women, Wiley’s signature works are larger-than-life portraits posed in a way that captures a vivid sense of the individual. Wiley’s sitters wear recognisable brands, football shirts and personal adornments, chronicling the influence of urban and hip-hop culture on fashion and style. Behind his sitters, Wiley creates ornate and elaborate backdrops that reference a range of styles from Islamic art, Rococo and African textiles. While echoing the vastness of his cultural influences, Wiley’s backdrops are pivotal in creating a dynamic interplay between the figures and their surroundings.

At the same time, these meticulously rendered backgrounds and postures serve as a visual commentary on the historical exclusion of Black subjects from art historical narratives. In doing so, he elevates his sitters to a level of grandeur typically reserved for aristocrats and nobility, commanding a challenge to traditional notions of representation and power.

Two young men dressed in vests and jeans stand next to each other, their bodies angled sideways and looking down at the camera. They hold a branch of leaves together; behind them is a decadent bouquet and roses wrapping around stone arches in the distance.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Charles I and Henrietta Maria © Kehinde Wiley 2006

Behind each of Wiley’s works lies a personal connection and collaborative process. Originating in Wiley’s early Harlem paintings, the artist has continued to employ street casting as part of his artistic process. Initially, this would involve Wiley stopping individuals on the streets of Harlem and requesting to paint their portraits. Wiley would then present a selection of portraits from art history books, using classical works to help determine the pose, adornments and stature of his sitters. By affording his subjects agency and influence over their own representations, Wiley actively subverts a structure of power that has long suppressed the visibility and influence of Black individuals.

Crossing the Confines of Cultures and Galleries: Kehinde Wiley's Artistic Journey

From his early career to his most recent endeavours, Wiley's artistic trajectory reflects a deep exploration of identity and representation through the intersection of art, culture, and politics.

Wiley quickly gained recognition for his large-scale portraits of young African American men he met on the streets of Harlem. Pictured in street attire, Wiley’s ornate backgrounds and majestic postures served as a powerful visual commentary on the absence of Black bodies within high art—and the colonial power structures that surround it. This represents the continuing impulse of Wiley’s work as his portraiture has moved across countries, cultures and artistic forms.

President Barack Obama dressed in a navy blue suit and white shirt, sitting on a wooden chair with his hands in his lap. Lush green leaves and colourful flora populate the background.Image © National Portrait Gallery / President Barack Obama © Kehinde Wiley 2018

Wiley’s longest-standing project is titled The World Stage, an endeavour that has seen him travel to various countries, including Nigeria, Brazil, Haiti and Jamaica to depict individuals from diverse cultures. These portraits celebrate global diversity, the African diaspora, and the specific cultural histories of each nation.

One of the pivotal moments in Wiley's career came in 2017 when he was commissioned to paint the portrait of President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. 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 Michelle Obama’s portrait) to be commissioned for a presidential portrait. The work features President Obama seated against a lush backdrop of foliage, speaking to Wiley's ability to merge historical art traditions with contemporary subjects in order to form a poignant social commentary.

A young man sits on an immaculately groomed white and grey horse with its head bowed. The man sits on a silk saddle holding the reins, wearing a vest, jeans and trainers. In the other hand, he holds a baseball cap out in a regal pose.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Count Potocki © Kehinde Wiley 2008

Beyond the traditional canvas, Wiley’s portraits have also come to life on different kinds of materials. In a vibrant reimagining of ecclesiastical art, Wiley has also created stained glass portraits of his contemporary sitters, situating his critique in a context that asks questions about the historical relationship between race, religion and power. His Iconic series echoes these themes, consisting of smaller altarpiece portraits that are inspired by 15th-century Byzantine iconography. Throughout the series, Wiley replaces the names of canonised saints with those of his sitters on the gilt frame.

Wiley's experimentation with form continued to unfold as he ventured beyond the confines of traditional gallery spaces. Drawing on his equestrian paintings from the early 2000s, he collaborated with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on a public art project that commands a clear challenge to the dominance of historical monuments. Taking inspiration from the statue of Confederate Army General James Ewell Brown created in 1907, Wiley’s response is Rumours of War (2016-2019), a monumental equestrian statue of a young African American man. Exploring the aestheticisation of power and portrayals of Black masculinity, the statue challenged the exclusionary narratives of public art and brought Wiley’s message into the visual landscape of the public domain.

Across different galleries, countries and formats, Wiley’s artistic journey traces an incisive questioning of power structures—and an unwavering will to reconfigure them.

A young tattooed man stands staring at the viewer with his hands on his hips. His shirt is off, and his head is tilted at an angle.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Prince Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria © Kehinde Wiley 2013

An Economy of Grace: Empowering Black Women and Challenging Stereotypes

While Wiley’s early work depicted young men exclusively, his later paintings in the series An Economy of Grace have also seen him explore Black female identity. Perhaps a mark of his growing confidence as a painter, these portraits achieve a similar commentary on power and representation as do his paintings of men, carving out a space for an empowered representation of Black women in a historically white domain.

Reprising his process of street casting in New York City, An Economy of Grace series depicts African American women as subjects of grace, power and beauty. They are based on historical portraits of aristocratic and high-society women by Jacques-Louis David, Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent that were chosen by Wiley and the Louvre. However, Wiley’s depictions of women departed from his tendency to paint subjects in their clothing. In a high-profile collaboration, Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci created custom gowns for each of Wiley’s models, embellishing the paintings with an additional parallel to the classical works that they reference. In doing so, Wiley endows his sitters with a level of status and subjectivity that flips the script of both modern and classical art.

A portrait of a young woman wearing a high-necked black top with shoulder cutouts. She looks down at the camera slightly, pictured against a graphic floral background.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Kancou Diaovno © Kehinde Wiley 2012

In a society that often marginalises and objectifies Black women, Wiley's art serves as a potent counter-narrative, reclaiming their narratives and affirming their place at the forefront of artistic representation. Wiley's depictions of Black women in positions of authority and strength challenge the prevailing stereotypes that have historically confined them to limiting roles. His portraits present these women with regal poise, adorned in lavish garments and surrounded by rich symbolism, inviting viewers to question and dismantle the assumptions imposed upon them.

Echoing his portraits of men, showcasing the beauty and complexity of Black female subjects also dismantles the notion of a monolithic black experience. Each portrait becomes a celebration of individuality, highlighting the diversity within Black womanhood and defying the narrow confines of societal expectations.

A woman posed facing away from the viewer and her body angled sideways, with her left arm held at an angle and her right arm on her lap. She wears a white off-the-shoulder gown with a thick leather belt around the waist.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Mrs. Siddons © Kehinde Wiley 2012

Kehinde Wiley's Global Reach: Senegal, France, and Beyond

Wiley's artistic vision and practice extend far beyond the United States. As he has forged connections and collaborations in countries around the world, Wiley's oeuvre has become a compelling capsule of the Black experience, chronicling the reach of the African diaspora and defying the cultural limitations imposed by European colonial histories.

While Nigerian on his father’s side, Wiley’s artistic journey is deeply influenced by his experiences in Senegal. Having first visited Dakar when he was 19, it became one of the first sites of creation for his World Stage Series, where he immersed himself in the vibrant artistic scene and drew inspiration from the rich cultural heritage of the country. In 2019, Wiley established his artistic residency Black Rock in Dakar, a project that draws inspiration from his early-career residency in Harlem. The residency is open to any artist making work that engages with Africa, with past residents—the Black Rock 40—putting on a high-profile group exhibition at the Douta Seck culture centre in downtown Dakar last year.

France has also played a pivotal role in Wiley's artistic journey both as an influence and an exhibitor. While his World Stage: France series explored the colonial history of France in Africa, the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris held a major exhibition of his work in 2022. This exhibition showcased works from his DOWN series, which culminated in 2008 and is an unsettling series of portraits and sculptures of Black bodies that draw on pictorial forms of fallen warriors and saints. While disrupting the narrative of classical art, the series is also injected with a harrowing message about the violence, pain and injustice inflicted on Black communities through history and the individual loss that goes with it.

Wiley's global engagement extends beyond specific countries as he continues collaborating with artists, institutions, and communities worldwide. Through exhibitions, public installations, and residency programmes, he has become a global ambassador for contemporary art and Black representation, fostering dialogue and connections that transcend borders.

Two young men sit in red chairs, wearing shorts and t-shirts. The man on the right has his arm around the other; the man on the left poses with three fingers held on each knee and his arms slightly outwards. Small red birds and orange leaves drawn in a graphic style populate the background.Image © Kehinde Wiley Studio / Dogon Couple © Kehinde Wiley 2008

Kehinde Wiley: Remaking The Master Painting

While his artistic career shows no signs of waning, Wiley’s 22 years at the forefront of contemporary art have already brought lifetime achievements. From his accolades as a presidential portrait artist to his immutable message of empowerment and subversion, he is among the most respected artists and thinkers of our time. And through his mesmerising portraits and public installations that have reshaped America’s visual and cultural landscape, Wiley has certainly made his mark.

Although influenced by Old Masters and iconical art historical figures, it would be inaccurate to think of Wiley’s work as a direct descendent. By appropriating the format in a way that redefines the limits of representation, Wiley has gone one step beyond. In the words of his Yale contemporary and artist Mickalene Thomas, “Kehinde Wiley has mastered master paintings.’’

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