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Obama's Portrait And The Black Artist Who Gave Life To The National Portrait Gallery

Kehinde Wiley has made history as he rose from a modest artist to a superstar in the art world, becoming the first African-American painter to be commissioned an official presidential portrait in 2018.

Over the past few years, an unassuming man from LA has risen to the ultimate stardom in the art world. From humble origins to becoming Obama’s painter, Kehinde Wiley’s life is an inspiring tale for us all. 

Photo by J.B. Forbes at St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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His brief biography

Born in 1977, Wiley’s career started back in his hometown of Los Angeles, where he studied art as a young kid. He was fortunate to have had a mother who was focused on getting him and his siblings out of the violent lives of LA’s lower neighborhoods. After successfully completing art studies in San Francisco and Yale, he settled in New York. The models for his paintings have usually been everyday young black men and women he finds on the streets of whichever city or country he visits, and depicts them in heroic, larger-than life paintings—thus effectively clashing the ordinary with the extraordinary. 

Then, by October 2017 an announcement was made. Kehinde Wiley had been commissioned to paint Barack Obama’s official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, one of the most prestigious official commissions for any artist. Thus, in 2018, Wiley and fellow portraitist Amy Sherald (who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait) became the first African-American artists to paint official portraits of a president or First Lady for the National Portrait Gallery. 

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President Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, D.C. Via Reddit.

An unusual style for an unusual portrait

Wiley’s portrait of Obama features several symbolic elements, many hidden among the saturated background. The flowers, in particular, hold specific meanings, according to art critic Holland Cotter. African blue Lillies refer to the birthplace of Obama’s father, in Kenya. Jasmines stand for Hawaii, Obama’s own native land. Finally, chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, and mark the place where Obama’s political career began. 

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Often contrasting the solemn poses of his subjects with flowery, colorful, and extravagant backgrounds, Wiley’s style has constantly challenged the (predominantly white) history of art. For this, Wiley references the poses used by the so-called “Old Masters” of the European art scene before the 19th century (painters like Goya, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, El Greco, and Vermeer are all Old Masters). Wiley reproduces these poses with black subjects, and then adds contemporary elements such as the textile-patterned background or modern clothing and accessories. 

Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,  by Kehinde Wiley, 2018. Via Wiley's official site.

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As such, Wiley successfully blurs the line between (and ultimately merges) the old and the new, the traditional and the contemporary. With that he exposes the historical tensions between economic classes, races, and genders. 

Take, for example, his Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005), which reframes Jacques-Louis David’s incredibly famous Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800). There, Wiley portrays Napoleon as an African rider wearing contemporary army fatigues and a bandanna instead of a traditional French uniform. The idea is to position young black men and women within the “field of power” historically given to white men. 

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A New Republic exhibit, via Wiley's official site.

Judith Beheading Holofernes

There’s also been some controversy surrounding Wiley’s works, some of which depict black people holding the severed heads of whites. Specifically, Wiley unveiled two paintings in 2012 reenacting the main scene from a famous story from the Christian Book of Judith, where a woman named, you guessed it, Judith seduces and decapitates a general called Holofernes. Wiley reimagines Judith as a tall, elegant black woman, and Holofernes as a young white woman. When asked about it, Wiley claimed that the paintings are “sort of a play on the 'kill whitey' thing.” 

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Judith and Holofernes, by Kehinde Wiley, 2012. Via Wiley's official site.

Regardless of your taste or preference, it’s hard not to recognize Wiley’s extraordinary talent not only as a skilled painter, but as an effective and keen social commentator. His works succeed in challenging the status quo, creating conversation, and generating awareness. And that’s exactly what true art is supposed to do. 

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Take a look at these other articles:
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