Meet Kehinde Wiley, Nigerian-American Artist Who Produced Obama’s Portrait

BEVERLY HILLS, February 13, (THEWILL) – Kehinde Wiley is a New York City-based portrait painter who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of African-Americans.

Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California. His father is Yoruba from Nigeria, and his mother is African-American. He and his five siblings were raised in South Central Los Angeles by his mother alone, who relied on welfare benefits and earnings from the family thrift shop. He travelled to Nigeria at 20 to explore his roots and met his father.

As a child, his interest in art was clear and he was enrolled by his mother in after-school art classes. At the age of 12, he spent a short time at an art school in Russia. He later earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University, School of Art in 2001.

His portraits are based on photographs of young men whom he sees on the street. He has painted men from Harlem’s 125th Street, as well as the South-Central Los Angeles neighbourhood where he was born.

Wiley’s “masterpiece” – Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005) – is based on Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David and has been restaged by Wiley with an African rider wearing modern army fatigues and a bandanna.

In October 2017 it was announced that Wiley had been commissioned to produce a portrait of former U.S. president Barack Obama by Mr. Obama himself, in the closing months of his presidency, for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

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The former president chose Wiley for his depiction of African-Americans posed in the style of Old Master paintings, regal, formal and filled with pops of colour.

“I’m excited about it: It’s going to be amazing,” he said. “It’s going to be, like, boom!” he told New York Times in November 2017 following the announcement.

This painting was eventually unveiled on Monday, February 12, 2018 and Wiley, alongside Amy Sherald, commissioned for Michelle’s portrait, became the first black artists to make official presidential portraits for the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley depicts Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker.

“How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” the 44th president said as he took the podium to unveil the portrait which depicts him sitting against a backdrop of green foliage. Obama said he tried to negotiate with Wiley about his look for the painting.

“I tried to negotiate less gray hair, and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears, struck out on that as well,” joked Obama from the podium during his remarks.

“I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We’ve got to bring it down just a touch. And that’s what he did.

“What I was always struck by when I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege.”

Wiley identifies as gay.

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