When Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald unveiled their stunning portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama on February 12, 2018, they caused a sensation, and the extraordinary popular response led to calls for a national tour of the two tableaux. The duo also made history as the first African American artists to create official portraits of an American president and first lady. Wiley’s portrait of the former president and Sherald’s portrait of Mrs. Obama are currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through May 30.
1980s Los Angeles Roots
Wiley, who is openly gay, has led a unique American life. Born in Los Angeles in 1977, he was the fifth of six children, raised by a single mother on welfare who eventually became a teacher.
“I first went to art school when I was about 11, and I also went to big museums in Southern California,” Wiley remembers. “I grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the late ’80s and was very much a part of the environment that was driven by some of the defining elements of hip hop—violence, anti-social behavior, streets on fire.
“I was fortunate because my mother was very much focused on getting me, my twin brother, and other siblings out of the ’hood. On weekends I would go to art classes at a conservatory. After school, we were on lockdown. It was something I hated, obviously, but in the end it was a lifesaver.”
Wiley completed his undergraduate studies at the Art Institute of San Francisco in 1999. His talent and drive propelled him to attend graduate school at Yale University, where he graduated with an art degree in 2001. “At Yale, my artistic focus became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity, etc.,” Wiley notes.
He is now one of the world’s most
acclaimed and successful visual artists, with studios in New York and China. His portrait of the former president is his most famous work.
Wiley’s paintings render people of color in the grand settings of Old Masters paintings. He recently authored an exhibition called The Prelude at the National Gallery in London, which described his unique style thusly:
His work makes reference to the canon of European portraiture by positioning contemporary Black sitters, from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds, in the poses of the original historical, religious or mythological figures. His images—as part quotation, part intervention—raise questions about power, privilege, identity, and above all highlight the absence or relegation of Black figures within European art.
Recognizing the Invisible People
Wiley’s work impressed one lover of contemporary art in particular: former president Barack Obama. “I was always struck by…the degree to which [Wiley’s portraits] challenged our conventional views of power and privilege, and the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them on a grand stage, on a grand scale, and force us to look and see them in ways that so often they were not,” observed Mr. Obama.
For Wiley, the two-year process of creating a presidential likeness on canvas was an inversion of his usual artistic practice.
“Prior to the election of Barack Obama, my work was so much about painting the powerless,” Wiley notes. “Painting those people who come from many of the Black and brown underserved communities throughout the world. What I did was ask complete strangers (who were often on their way to work or minding their own business) to sit for me, to be in these portraits. And oftentimes, these moments of chance would turn into epic-scale paintings that you would see in some of the great museums throughout the world.
“I think that the transformation act that happens is completely different from what happens in a presidential portrait,” Wiley states. “Here you’re dealing with arguably the most powerful person in the world. And you’re dealing with actual power. Not metaphorical, but its depiction. And you’re talking about the contours of and the historical realization of grace, of power, in its most visceral and raw form.”
Breaking the Mold
Wiley’s painting presents a striking contrast to the formality of earlier presidential portraits. “It really broke the mold,” observes Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, which commissioned the paintings of Mr. and Mrs. Obama and has organized their national tour.
“If you’re the first Black artist, you do it differently because it’s your personal take, and you need to make a statement,” comments Taina Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history at the National Portrait Gallery.
“Both artists are also art historians. They’ve studied the history of art,” says Caragol. “They are very interested in the power of representation, and how to redirect and rethink the narrative that is in the textbook. They were very aware of the statements these works could make.”
“The ability to paint the first African American president of the United States—it doesn’t get any better than that,” observes Wiley.
The Obama Portraits Tour is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through May 30. Thursdays are the MFAH’s free days, and the portraits can also be seen for free on Thursdays. More info: mfah.org
This article appears in the May 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.