Black History Month Spotlight: Kehinde Wiley

by Grace Bonney

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There are moments in art and design when I struggle with the decorative nature of the things I love. I know that these parts of design (pattern, color, furniture) have the power to make people feel at home in their spaces, but I also know that they don’t begin to touch on deeper topics that rattle around in my mind and heart — especially right now. But every now and then there are artists and artworks that are able to brilliantly blend decorative arts and art history with deeply meaningful and symbolic statements about cultural and political issues. One of the artists I admire most for this ability (and so much more) is Kehinde Wiley.

Born in Los Angeles, CA in 1977, Kehinde now lives and works in New York City where he is known for his striking portraiture. Kehinde’s work references classic paintings and composition from art history and replaces the main figures with young black men and women. Their striking portraits are complemented by richly colored and patterned backgrounds that recall a wide range of decorative styles, from baroque and rococo to floral and damask prints.

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While discussing his portraiture focusing on black men and women, Kehinde said:

“I loved when I walked into LACMA as a kid and seeing Kerry James Marshall’s grand barbershop painting. But it was thrown into very sharp relief when thinking about the absence of other black images in that museum. There was something absolutely heroic and fascinating about being able to feel a certain relationship to the institution and the fact that these people happen to look like me on some level. One of the reasons I’ve chosen some of these zones had to do with the way you fantasize, whether it be about your own people or far-flung places, and how there’s the imagined personality and look and feel of a society, and then there’s the actuality that sometimes is jarring, as a working artist and traveling from time to time. Being in southern India, that black American hip hop culture is everywhere and to see it in sharp relief on these brown bodies in south Asia is something extraordinary, something that I wanted to get down without even fully understanding the entirety of the cultural context. I think it’s important to destabilize yourself, and I do it because I want to see people who look like me.

Kehinde’s work is striking and powerful on so many levels and artwork like his is the reason I keep feeling excited and eager to learn more about the fine art world. Our art and design community is made stronger when we celebrate voices and visuals from different points of view, and Kehinde’s point of view is one I will continue to love and follow for years to come. Click here to visit his website, here for his Instagram feed and here for an incredible PBS episode on his life and work. xo, grace

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  • I have been scrolling up and down on this post for at least 10 minutes, mesmerized by these holycrapamazing portraits, in between reading an interview with Wiley on his website about the negotiation of power in image making.
    His work is spectacular and powerful, thank you for the introduction to it, I’m off to see if I can find it exhibited anywhere near me!

  • There is a great Kehinde Wiley retrospective currently at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. If you’re near the area, I encourage you to spend some time with his powerful 2D and 3D works. It’s an incredible show of incredible work.

  • Yes! Kehinde Wiley’s work is incredible in person (though it looks pretty awesome on the computer screen too). I will never forget when I first saw his work in the VMFA and then several months later at the Nasher Museum at Duke. It’s so powerful. Thank you for featuring him here.