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The Art Story Homepage Artists Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Photo

Kehinde Wiley

American Painter

Movements and Styles: Identity Politics, Queer Art

Born: 1977 - Los Angeles, California

Kehinde Wiley Timeline

"My work is not about paint. It's about paint at the service of something else. It is not about gooey, chest-beating, macho '50s abstraction that allows paint to sit up on the surface as subject matter about paint."

Summary of Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is a young, African-American painter who is quite literally changing the face(s) of portraiture with his sensitive, vibrant, and political portrayals of black folk, ranging from teenagers he meets on the streets, to fellow contemporary artists, and even former President Barack Obama.

Wiley made a name for himself for his naturalistic, brightly colored portraits of young black men, often with dramatic flowery backgrounds. With black masculinity often framed as synonymous with fear and violence in the USA, his generous and vibrant portraits challenge viewers' preconceptions of their subjects and bring young men, and people, of color into the galleries and museums they are so woefully underrepresented in.

Key Ideas

Wiley's work falls into the category of Identity Politics, which is art, film, and writing, which deals primarily with aspects of the artist's identity, for example race, gender, and sexuality. It is vitally important to Wiley that black people, especially black American men, are both the subjects and the audience of his paintings. At a time when young black men are constantly vilified in the press and mainstream media, and even murdered on the street by racist policemen, Wiley's portraits are an essential document of the power, fashion, versatility and beauty of the black community in the USA.
Wiley talks about portraiture and the "field of power", referring to the way that painted portraits of people indicates that they are powerful, but also that portraits hold the potential to give power to those who are painted in this way, turning traditional portrait painting upside down.
In 1975, Laura Mulvey put forward the idea of the "male gaze", that images of women are produced to be static objects for men to look at. bell hooks challenged Mulvey by pointing out that race was totally absent from Mulvey's argument and that black men are excluded (in that they are punished for looking at white women) as well as black women (in that they are never beautiful enough to be objects of desire). bell hooks put forward the idea of the "oppositional gaze" where black subjects interrupt white looks, and thus white power. Wiley's subjects often embody this oppositional gaze, and successfully challenge comfortable white modes of looking and being looked at, in a way that is unique and hugely important in decolonizing the Western art canon.
Wiley often appropriates, or re-uses, recognizable art history images and tropes, such as portraits of Napoleon, heroic sea paintings, and traditional nudes. He does this as a way to critique art historical norms - the way we almost only see white people painted by other white people when we look at painting - and to use pre-existing tools to elevate black folk to the important positions inhabited by these white people of art history.
As a gay black man, it is important for Wiley to reposition black male bodies as objects of desire, eroticism, and vulnerability, as opposed to fear, strength and violence. Black gay men are often doubly victimised in society, and Wiley's purposeful queering of recognizable images; his use of flowers; and camp, playful portraits are all important contributions to what queer black art can look like in America, and the importance of blackness to queerness, and visa versa.
Kehinde Wiley Photo

Kehinde Wiley was born and grew up in South-central Los Angeles with an African-American mother, Freddie Mae Wiley, and a Yoruba father from Nigeria, Isaiah D. Obot, who came to the United States as a scholarship student and then returned to Africa after finishing his studies, leaving Wiley's mother to raise their six children. When Wiley was a child, his mother recognized his artistic talent, saying that he could reproduce anything he saw by drawing, and she enrolled him and his twin brother in after-school art classes at the age of 11. Wiley says, "She wanted us to stay away from gang culture; the sense that most of my peers would end up either dead or in prison was a very real thing. So we were on buses doing five-hour round trips every weekend to go study art. That was a huge pain in the ass. My brother ended up in love with medicine and literature and business - he's in real estate and finance now. But me, I really got the art bug."

Important Art by Kehinde Wiley Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important by Kehinde Wiley - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005)
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Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005)

Artwork description & Analysis: This equestrian portrait appropriates Jacques-Louis David's famous Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (1800). In Wiley's version, a young contemporary African-American male rider wears army fatigues, a white bandanna, tan boots, red sweatbands on his wrists, and a flowing golden cloak around his shoulders. The composition is the same as David's masterpiece, with the figure gesturing upward with his tattooed right arm while sitting confidently atop a rearing white horse, upon a rocky landscape. As in the original, the names of military leaders who have led their armies over the alps ("BONAPARTE", "HANNIBAL", and "KAROLUS MAGNUS") are carved into the rocks at the bottom left corner, however in Wiley's version, an extra name, "WILLIAMS" (the name of Wiley's sitter) is included above the other two. Wiley also signed and dated the work in the same place as David, on the horse's breastplate. The background of the upper three-quarters of the painting is a decorative red and gold Baroque brocade pattern. Throughout the background, small white sperm can be seen swimming against the deep red pattern. The painting is mounted in an ornate gold frame.

Wiley ironically uses fashionable camouflage-patterned clothes to reference the military provenance of the original David painting, itself a piece of propaganda pieced together from accounts and images - Napoleon neither led his troops, nor rode a white horse, but rather followed behind them on a mule. Positioning a young black man atop this white steed assigns power to black male subjects, who are particularly disenfranchised and victimised in contemporary America. The use of camouflage clothing - which is intended purely as decorative fashion, not to hide its wearer - and excessive pageantry and overly dramatic pose of Wiley's painting also highlights the artificiality, pompousness, and "over-the-top pageantry" of many of the Western world's most famous images. Moreover, Wiley explains, "I use French Rococo influences, with its garishness and vulgarity, to complement the flashy attire and display of 'material consumption' evident in hip-hop culture." Indeed, fashion is a crucial component of Wiley's paintings. He states that "I'm looking at fashion as culture, fashion as serious business. Where people will often times dress themselves as a form of armor. Fashion is armor in so much as it says something about who we are in the world. It also protects us a bit. My work tries to concentrate on fashion as a conceptual color. It's yet another color in my palette to tell a story."

The inclusion of sperm in the background is Wiley's way of referencing masculinity, highlighting black masculinity, and also poking fun at the excessive, over the top heroic heterosexual masculinity evoked by historical equestrian portraiture. Wiley notes, "Equestrian portraiture became such a phenomenon because it represented man's domination over nature, and by extension over women". This type of equestrian portraiture was about men wishing to be portrayed as sexual and military heroes, conquering the beast between their legs, as Gods, something Wiley sees as "beautiful and strangely psychologically vulnerable", but also "complete bullshit" in its affirmation of white, heterosexual, male dominance.

In order to give his portrait the same sense of scale as its historical counterpart, Wiley used Photoshop to make the horse appear smaller and the human figure appear larger. He refers to the resulting effect as "Hyper-heroic". The sheer scale of the canvas, comparable to Old Masters paintings, is intended to "contend with you in physical space", Wiley says. He understands the museum as a type of stage, and aims to use his works to both embrace/emulate, yet also criticize museum culture. He says "My job as an artist is simply to ask who deserves to be on the great museum walls."

Oil on canvas

Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro (2008)
Artwork Images Google images

Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro (2008)

Artwork description & Analysis: This portrait is of a young black boy with bleach-blond hair, wearing a black baseball cap backwards, and a red sleeveless tank top. The boy is depicted from the chest up, and gazes sideways at the viewer sceptically or warily. The yellow background is composed of brightly colored blue and red flowers with green foliage. A few of the flowers also appear in the foreground, floating in front of the subject's chest. The work is mounted in a black floral frame.

This portrait is typical of Wiley's work, featuring a young black male subject depicted against an ornate background. However, this work also acts as an example of how Wiley responds "site-specifically" to different geographical locations. This portrait was completed in Brazil, and instead of his typical Rococo or Baroque backdrops, Wiley drew inspiration from the brightly patterned tablecloths found in the favelas, or shanty town, inhabited by poorer working people in Brazil. He brings a similar site-specificity to portraits done in other parts of the world. For instance, in West Africa, he was inspired by the African patterns found in the marketplaces, and sampled body positions from West African sculpture. Likewise, in Israel, he created his backgrounds based on Israeli paper cut outs. In this way, viewers of Wiley's portraits completed outside of the Unites States are provided with instantly recognizable visual clues (regional and cultural specific imagery and patterns) to help them locate the work and the subject's point of origin.

Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro is himself a favela dweller, who Wiley met on the streets of Brazil. As in many countries and cities, people living geographically and conceptually on the outskirts of the town are thought to be unimportant and unsavoury. Young black and brown men on the margins are further often considered dangerous, lazy, and violent - all racist stereotypes fostered by contemporary politics, image-making and popular culture. This painting completely turns these ideas and images around.

This portrait is unique in the way it paints its subject - a young boy encountered on the street, on the outskirts - in the same manner that famous, important people (almost always white men) have historically been portrayed. The flowers behind and in front of this boy also speak to the vulnerability, youth, and beauty of favela cultures and young black and brown boys, who are often treated as if they are always already adult, hard, and dangerous.

Oil on canvas

Femme Piquée par un Serpent (2008)
Artwork Images Google images

Femme Piquée par un Serpent (2008)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this enormous painting, a young black man wears sneakers, blue jeans which are provocatively pulled down slightly to reveal the white underwear underneath, an orange t-shirt, lime green hooded sweatshirt, and an orange baseball cap tilted to the side. The subject is depicted reclining on a wooden bed covered in a white sheet. The man gazes over his shoulder sensuously at the viewer; a 'come hither' stare. The background is deep blue with pale pinkish-beige flowers, some of which emerge into the foreground, falling over the man and bed.

The historical inspiration for this painting was Auguste Clésinger's 1847 sculpture of the same name, which depicted a woman in the process of dying from a venomous snakebite. At the time, the sculpture was controversial, as many saw the woman's writhing and contorting as more erotic and sensual than indicative of impending death. By adopting the reclining pose, this and similar works by Wiley in the Down series - which depicted an unsettling series of prone bodies - imbue the subjects with a greater sense of sensuality and vulnerability than his usual oeuvre.

David J. Getsy, Professor of Art History at the Art Institute of Chicago, explains the historical significance of the reclining pose, writing, "In this tradition, ascendance is hierarchical, and the uprightness of the human body signals the intellectual and moral alertness of the figure. Asleep, wounded, dead, or objectified, the horizontal body is first and foremost one whose mortality and carnality have been underscored by its lack of uprightness. The recumbent body, in this way, came to signify passivity, vulnerability, and availability." Wiley explains his choice of pose, stating, "Historically, we're used to female figures in repose. I think we're almost trained to read the reclining figure in a painting within an erotic state. There's a type of powerlessness with regard to being down off of your feet, and in that sense, that power exchange can be codified as an erotic moment." Art critic Chloe Wyma writes that with this painting, "Wiley simultaneously queers and racializes the sublimated perversity of 19th-century academic statuary, replacing the pallid marble female nude with a reclining black man in low-slung jeans and a green hoodie. Here, the black male body, still an object of anxiety and presumed criminality in American culture, lies on a divan, gazing at the viewer like a coy odalisque."

This painting breaks many of the rules of the nude figure study, traditionally small, unimposing studies of naked or near-naked smooth-skinned white women painted by men for other men to gaze down upon. At the same time, Wiley purposely uses other recognizable historical formal traditions such as the drapery on the bed, reclining figure and evocative, yet passive over the shoulder gaze of the feminine lover to refigure the young black man as queer figure of vulnerability, softness, and sexual desire.

Of the soft flowers floating through the picture plane, Wiley says that he wants there to be a competition in his work between foreground and background, as historically the male subject is portrayed as the dominant presence in the foreground, while everything else (such as land and cattle) is shown to be his property, appearing behind him in the background.

Oil on canvas

More Kehinde Wiley Artwork and Analysis:

Judith Beheading Holofernes (2012) Portrait of Barack Obama (2017) Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote (2017) Ship of Fools (2017)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Kehinde Wiley
Interactive chart with Kehinde Wiley's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Joshua ReynoldsJoshua Reynolds
Thomas GainsboroughThomas Gainsborough
TitianTitian
Jean-Auguste-Dominique IngresJean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Personal Contacts

Ai WeiweiAi Weiwei
Kerry James Marshall
Yinka Shonibare

Movements

The BaroqueThe Baroque
NeoclassicismNeoclassicism
Identity PoliticsIdentity Politics
Influences on Artist
Influences on Artist
Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley
Years Worked: 1998 - Present
Influenced by Artist
Influenced by Artist

Artists

JP Mika
Peju Alatise

Personal Contacts

Kerry James Marshall
Yinka Shonibare
Mickalene ThomasMickalene Thomas

Movements

Identity PoliticsIdentity Politics

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 06 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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