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Kehinde Wiley (born February 28, 1977)[1] is a New York City-based portrait painter who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of African-Americans. The Columbus Museum of Art, which hosted an exhibition of his work in 2007, describes his work as follows: "Wiley has gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture."[2]

Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley (2015) (cropped).jpg
Wiley in 2015
Born (1977-02-28) February 28, 1977 (age 41)
Alma mater
Known forPainting

In October 2017 it was announced that Wiley had been commissioned to produce a portrait of former U.S. president Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.[3] This painting was unveiled on February 12, 2018.[4] He and Amy Sherald, whose portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama was simultaneously unveiled, are the first black artists to paint official portraits of the president or First Lady for the National Portrait Gallery.[5] Wiley has received criticism in association with commissioning him for the Obama presidential portrait, as he has produced two painting variations of Judith Beheading Holofernes where Wiley depicts African-American women holding the severed heads of white women, which Wiley says is a "play on the 'kill whitey' thing".[6][7][8]


Early life and educationEdit

Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California. His father is Yoruba from Nigeria, and his mother is African-American. Wiley has a twin brother.[9] As a child, Wiley's mother supported his interest in art and enrolled him in after-school art classes. At the age of 12, he spent a short time at an art school in Russia.[10]

Wiley did not grow up with his father, and at the age of 20 traveled to Nigeria to explore his roots and meet him.[11] Wiley earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University, School of Art in 2001.[1]


Wiley often references Old Masters paintings for the pose of the figure.[12] Wiley's paintings often blur the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation. Rendered in a realistic mode—while making references to specific Old Master paintings—Wiley creates a fusion of period styles, ranging from French Rococo, Islamic architecture and West African textile design to urban hip hop and the "Sea Foam Green" of a Martha Stewart Interiors color swatch. Wiley's slightly larger than life-size figures are depicted in a heroic manner, as their poses connote power and spiritual awakening. Wiley's portrayal of masculinity is filtered through these poses of power and spirituality.

Wiley's Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005) is based on Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David, often regarded as a "masterpiece", now restaged by Wiley with an African rider wearing modern army fatigues and a bandanna. Wiley "investigates the perception of blackness and creates a contemporary hybrid Olympus in which tradition is invested with a new street credibility".[13]

His portraits are based on photographs of young men whom Wiley sees on the street. He has painted men from Harlem's 125th Street, as well as the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood where he was born. Dressed in street clothes, his models were asked to assume poses from the paintings of Renaissance masters, such as Tiziano Vecellio and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Wiley describes his approach as "interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit". His figurative paintings "quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power". In this manner, his paintings fuse history and style in a unique and contemporary manner. His art has been described as having homoerotic qualities.[14] Wiley has used a sperm motif as symbolic of masculinity and gender.[15][16][17]

Wiley had a retrospective in 2016 at Seattle Art Museum.[18] In May 2017, he had an exhibit, Trickster, at the Sean Kelly Gallery, New York City. The exhibit featured 11 paintings depicting contemporary black artists.[4]

Wiley opened a studio in Beijing, China, in 2006 to use several helpers to do brushstrokes for his paintings.[19] Initially, outsourcing work to China had been done to cut costs but by 2012, Wiley told New York magazine that low costs was no longer the reason.[19]

Judith Beheading HolofernesEdit

In 2012, Wiley who is known for painting men, exhibited work in Beijing including multiple paintings of women. New York Magazine described his variation of the painting of Judith Beheading Holofernes as standing out among the others, describing the painting as depicting: "a tall, elegant black woman in a long blue dress. In one hand, she holds a knife. In the other, a cleanly severed brunette female head". Describing the painting Wiley said: "It's sort of a play on the 'kill whitey' thing".[20][6] Wiley exhibited a second similar painting also in 2012. It also features a black woman holding a knife in one hand and a white female severed head in the other hand. The paintings are based on the story of Judith beheading Holofernes, a story of a female beheading a male general. Wiley interpreted the female character of Judith as a modern-day black woman. It is unclear why he interpreted Holofernes as white and changed the beheaded General Holofernes from male to female.[7][6]

Barack Obama presidential portraitEdit

In October 2017, it was announced that Wiley had been chosen by Barack Obama to paint an official portrait of the former president to appear in Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery "America's Presidents" exhibition.[3] The painting was unveiled on February 12, 2018, and depicts Obama sitting in a chair seemingly floating among foliage.[14]

Recognition and honorsEdit

In October 2011, Wiley received the Artist of the Year Award from the New York City Art Teachers Association/United Federation of Teachers. He also received Canteen Magazine's Artist of the Year Award. Two of Wiley's paintings were featured on the top of 500 New York City taxi cabs in early 2011 as a collaboration with the Art Production Fund.

Wiley is featured in a commercial on the USA as a 2010 Character Honoree.[21] Puma AG commissioned Wiley to paint four portraits of prominent African soccer players. Patterns from his paintings were incorporated into Puma athletic gear.[11] The complete series, Legends of Unity: World Cup 2010, was exhibited in early 2010 at Deitch Projects in New York City.[22]

His work was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Recognize exhibit in 2008.[23] Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, a retrospective at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond, VA), in the summer of 2016 (June 11 – September 5) assembled nearly 60 of his paintings and sculptures.

Personal lifeEdit

Wiley identifies as gay.[24][25]

Selected solo exhibitionsEdit

  • 2006: Kehinde Wiley: Columbus at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH
  • 2006: Willem van Heythuysen at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
  • 2008: Three Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos at (PAFA) Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
  • 2009: The World Stage: Brazil at Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles, CA
  • 2009: The World Stage: Africa at ArtSpace, San Antonio, TX
  • 2009: Black Light at Deitch Projects, New York City
  • 2010: Legends of Unity | World Cup 2010 | PUMA, several locations worldwide
  • 2010: The World Stage: India, Sri Lanka at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, IL
  • 2011: Kehinde Wiley: Selected Works at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art, Savannah, GA
  • 2012: An Economy of Grace at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York City
  • 2012: The World Stage: France at Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris
  • 2012: Kehinde Wiley/ The World Stage: Israel at The Jewish Museum, New York City[26]
  • 2011–13: The World Stage: Israel at Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA; traveled to Jewish Museum (New York) (2012); the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA (2013); Boise Art Museum, Boise, ID (2013)
  • 2013: Kehinde Wiley: Memling at Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ
  • 2013: The World Stage: Jamaica at Stephen Freidman Gallery, London, UK
  • 2015–17: Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic[27] at the Brooklyn Museum (2015), Brooklyn, NY; traveled to Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX (2016); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA (2016); Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA (2016); Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ (2016); Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH (2017), Oklahoma City Museum of Art (2017)[28]
  • 2017: Trickster, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York City[29]
  • 2017-18: In Search of the Miraculous at Stephen Freidman Gallery, London, UK
  • 2018 October 19 - February 10, 2019: Kehinde Wiley at St. Louis Museum of Art, St. Louis, MO.[30]



  1. ^ a b "Kehinde Wiley", Artnet. Retrieved October 13, 2010.
  2. ^ Villarreal, Ignacio. "Kehinde Wiley: Columbus To Open".
  3. ^ a b Smith, Roberta. "Why the Obamas' Portrait Choices Matter". New York Times. Retrieved December 24, 2017.
  4. ^ a b Frank, Priscilla (May 26, 2017). "Kehinde Wiley Paints The Formative Black Artists Of Our Time". Huffington Post. Retrieved June 22, 2017.
  5. ^ "Michelle Obama portrait by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald makes national splash". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
  6. ^ a b c "Obama portrait artist's past work depicted black women decapitating white women". The Telegraph. 13 February 2018. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  7. ^ a b Levine, Jon (12 February 2018). "Obama Portrait Artist Kehinde Wiley Once Painted Black Women Decapitating White Women". Yahoo Entertainment. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  8. ^ "FACT CHECK: Did Obama's Portraitist Paint an Image of a Black Woman Holding the Severed Head of a White Person?". 2018-02-13. Retrieved 2018-02-14.
  9. ^ "Artist Talk: Kehinde Wiley". October 26, 2018. Retrieved January 13, 2019.
  10. ^ Kehinde Wiley, "On studying art in the forests of St. Petersburg at age 12, his hyperdecorative style, and combining grandeur with chance", Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2012.
  11. ^ a b "PUMA commissions Contemporary Artist Kehinde Wiley to create portraits of African Football Players to Celebrate World Cup 2010 Campaign", PUMA Creative, January 2010. Retrieved October 13, 2010.
  12. ^ Hurst, Roy. "Young, Gifted, and Black: Painter Kehinde Wiley", NPR, June 1, 2005.
  13. ^ Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed. (2008). Art Now, Vol. 3: A cutting-edge selection of today's most exciting artists. Taschen. p. 512. ISBN 9783836505116.
  14. ^ a b Philip Kennicott (February 12, 2018). "The Obamas' portraits are not what you'd expect and that's why they're great". The Washington Post.
  15. ^ Clemans, Gayle. "Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps". Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  16. ^ Quito, Anne. "The painter who remixes classical European art with black urban youth". Quartz. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  17. ^ Smith, Roberta. "A Hot Conceptualist Finds the Secret of Skin". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  18. ^ Romano, Tricia. "A new republic: Kehinde Wiley comes to Seattle Art Museum". Seattle Times. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  19. ^ a b "Outsource to China". New York. April 22, 2012.
  20. ^ Beam, Christopher (22 April 2012). "Outsource to China - While riffing on the Western canon. Kehinde Wiley's global reach". New York Magazine. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  21. ^ "Art: Kehinde Wiley" Archived 2010-03-15 at the Wayback Machine., USA Network. Retrieved October 13, 2010.
  22. ^ "Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares (captioned image)". Harper's. 320 (1, 919): 17. April 2010. Retrieved August 15, 2011. (subscription required)
  23. ^ "Painting: Kehinde Wiley", National Portrait Gallery: Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture. Retrieved October 13, 2010.
  24. ^ Deborah Solomon (January 28, 2015). "Kehinde Wiley Puts a Classical Spin on His Contemporary Subjects". The New York Times.
  25. ^ Benjamin Butterworth (20 October 2017). "Barack Obama picks gay artist Kehinde Wiley to do his official portrait". PinkNews. Retrieved February 12, 2018.
  26. ^ "Kehinde Wiley / The World Stage: Israel". The Jewish Museum.
  27. ^ "Brooklyn Museum". Retrieved June 22, 2017.
  29. ^ "Kehinde Wiley: Trickster", Sean Kelly.
  30. ^ "Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis". Retrieved December 26, 2018.
  31. ^ "Kehinde Wiley".

External linksEdit