Meet the man behind Obama's official portrait
Kehinde Wiley was already widely popular in the contemporary art world however not everybody was familiar with the controversial artist.
Over the previous two decades, the Los Angeles-raised and New York City-based artist became known for his larger-than-life canvasses showing contemporary African Americans within centuries-old trappings of power and status. Many of his highly sought-after works, which sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, evoke Old Master paintings.
He’s also become known for his process of basing portraits off photographs of everyday people he meets on city streets around the world. It’s a method he first started using in Harlem, where these amateur models would choose classical images as inspiration for the resulting portraits.
Wiley’s paintings often replace white aristocrats and dignitaries with black and brown people, subjects he seeks on the streets of major U.S. cities, in clothing like hoodies, combat boots and do-rags. In Napolean Leading the Army over the Alps, his version of the French general dons camouflage, Timberland boots, a white T-shirt and a bandana.
Wiley, one of six children, grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s and was about 11 years old when he enrolled in a small art conservatory. He went on to attend San Francisco Art Institute, and then Yale for a master of fine arts. Like Obama, Wiley grew up without his father and travelled to Nigeria to meet him later in life.
The Obamas chose Wiley and Sherald after considering portfolios of some 20 artists.The Obamas interviewed a few at the White House, but ultimately decided on the two contemporary portraitists with whom they each felt a connection. Both artists’ work shows a commitment to making portraits of people who have traditionally been marginalized.
The Obamas made history not only as the country's first African-American presidential couple featured in the gallery but also for selecting the first African-American painters to receive a presidential portrait commission from the museum.
Barack Obama selected New York-based portraitist Kehinde Wiley for his painting, while Michelle Obama selected Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald.
Wiley's portrait of Obama features the former president wearing a black suit, sitting on a wooden chair surrounded by flowers and green foliage.
"Thanks to Kehinde and Amy, generations of Americans, and young people from all around the world,will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens," Obama said in an Instagram post. "They'll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic. And I hope they'll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds. "
"What I was always struck by whenever I saw [Wiley's] portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege," Obama said at the unveiling.
Speaking about his unique opportunity, Kehinde said, "The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn't get any better than that."
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