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Kehinde Wiley: Nigerians in the Arts, No. 1

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Kehinde Wiley: Nigerians in the Arts, No. 1

This series takes a keen look at Nigerians, home and abroad, who have made a name for themselves in any particular endeavor that relates to art and how their arts impact popular culture. 

The portrait of President Barack Obama will soon go up in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and the former president personally chose Nigerian painter Kehinde Wiley to paint him.

Kehinde Wiley, who painted a lot of the arts found in popular series “Empire” took up the paint brush at age 11 when he enrolled in an art class and frequented Museums. His regular visits to the Museum made him conscious of the lack of representation of brown faces in the portraits, and even at that young age, his keen sense of self built in him an understanding of the role of power and privilege or its dynamics in art. 

Kehinde Wiley’s Art is bold, very colourful and tries to present comtemporary culture in a backdrop of classic art, all in the quest to open the door into a world his likes were never invited to.

Kehinde Wiley’s Mother is an American woman who met his dad, a Nigerian, at UCLA. Kehinde Wiley, obviously, is a twin (Kehinde is the name given to the first child of a set of twins by the Yorubas). He was born in South Central L.A and earned his B.F.A from Yale. As if that isn’t improbable enough, Wiley is one of the most commercially successful artists of his generation.

Wiley’s Art is a history Laden representation of the present, with insights from popular culture. Some of his subjects are popular black individuals that includes MJ, LL Cool J, Biggie, Eto’o amongst others, painted on a backdrop of decorative patterns; arts and crafts; fabrics and floral designs that are sourced from all over the world. He is also known to do ‘street casting’. In Wiley’s arts, the ‘very’ white Kings and saints of Classical protrature are reborn as Blacks; possessing the same pose and dignity, but with modern attires to represent contemporary culture. The thrones and crowns are replaced with blings and Nikes.

Kehinde Wiley: the Nigerian Repainting the History of Art
The Virgin Martyr. St. Cecilia


His work has been likened to that of Markelene Thomas – the Brooklyn based painter whose complex rhinestone and acrylic paintings of black women draws heavily from pop culture, and the late Jean Michel Basquat who reconstructed arts by pulling strings from his origins. But Wiley’s Pastiche paintings bear more resemblance, theoretically, to the controversial works of Barkley Hendricks in the 70’s.

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Like Hendricks’, Wiley’s work is also deemed controversial by some critics. They are quick to point out that his paintings, especially the inclusion of designer labels, are too pop culture infused to be regarded as high arts. In an interview with the New York Times, Wiley answered: “Fashion is fragile and fleeting, but it is also an indicator for the cultural and social appetite for a nation.” He went further in an interview with NPR, “Why take it out? The brands people wear are serious business.”

“Fishermen at Sea (Jean-Frantz Laguerre and Andielo Pierre)” (2017), by Mr. Wiley. Credit Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

But the issue or question as regards the measure of his assistants’ involvement in his paintings are not so easy to answer, and won’t go away anytime soon. The patterns in his works, a mainstay of his style as much as anything else, are painted by these assistants in a studio in China. It leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the involvement of outsiders in his art, and the quality of the patterns sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

New Republic. Brooklyn Museum
New Republic. Brooklyn Museum
Kehinde Wiley’s “Ship of Fools” (2017). Credit Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

And while Wiley has chosen to paint the everyday, or the powerless, the fact he is set to paint a former President, especially one as iconic as Obama is a testament, not only to his talent, but to his unwavering and triumphant believe in the inclusivity of art.

Western Arts, Wiley believes, has ignored brown faces and he sees it as as a duty to change that history, until blackness or brownness is as much a thing in Museums as whiteness. And it has to be said that he is succeeding, and in doing so has become one of the influential artist of the 21st century.

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