Kehinde Wiley: the Nigerian Repainting the History of Art
French Artist Eugene Delacroix once said “I believe that when one needs a subject, it is best to hark back to the Classics and to choose something there” And that is exactly what Nigerian – American Artist Kehinde Wiley is doing. But more than that, Wiley is wreaking havoc on the white dominated portraiture of the renaissance, and repainting masterpieces, quite literarily.
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 second child of a set of twins by the Yorubas), birthed 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. 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.
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 the 70’s.
LNee Hendricks’, Wiley’s work is also controversial. His critics 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.”
More seriously though, is the question of what the measure of involvement in his paintings by his assistants are, or the sources of the pattern in the background. Wiley’s assistants paints the busy patterns and floral arrangements in a studio in China, as confirmed by him. It has much to do with his success as the demand for his work are too much for him to do it all.
Western Arts, Wiley believes, has ignored brown faces and he sees it as as a duty to change that history, until blackness 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 influencial artist of the 21st century.
Olanrewaju Odesomi is an accounting graduate, and a Certified Customer Care Professional. He is a dreamer who dances to his own music, and whose peak is yet to be conquered. Guilty of writing. You can find him on twitter @lanreode