Born in Los Angeles in 1977, Yale-educated artist Kehinde Wiley is best known for his highly naturalistic portraits of people of colour - often with bold floral backdrops and created on a grand scale - that challenge art-historical narratives. His compositions reference old master paintings of heroic figures, religious torture victims and wounded soldiers like those in Velasquez paintings, reimagining them with modern people, urban streetwear and logos.
His most recent show, “An Archaeology of Silence,” depicting scenes inspired by the global pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, was mounted at San Francisco’s de Young Museum of Fine Arts during the inaugural Fleurs de Villes PRIDE San Francisco in June, 2023. The series meditates on young Black people being slain around the world. Seeing it, our Co-founder Karen Marshall was moved to tears. Wiley is also part of a group exhibition, “Flowers Forever,” at Kunsthalle München, Munich, Germany, until August 27, 2023.
KEHINDE WILEY’S USE OF FLOWERS IN HIS ARTWORK
Wiley incorporates intricate details into his oil-on-canvas works that draw attention to various African diasporic cultures through fashion, hairstyles, jewellery and floral backdrops inspired by William Morris motifs and other symbolism. His work stands out due to its bold colours and dynamic compositions that contrast with traditional portraiture styles. Wiley’s feminine floral backdrops contrast with his masculine figures, creating tension and drawing attention. He has said that he first became interested in patterns and textiles while exploring his mother’s L.A. thrift store as a youth.
The arresting Femme Piquée Par Un Serpent II, 2010 is a play on the reclining female nude, as a young man dressed in urban streetwear satirically mimes the submissive poses of Romanticist painters. The chintz floral pattern surrounding him is in stark contrast to his contemporary clothing, a playful and cheeky clash of old and new. Wiley’s more recent painting Three Boys, 2015 is a veritable feast for the eyes, combining clashing florals with stripes, paisleys and curling leaves that seem to sprout into life around the three young men.
KEHINDE WILEY’S BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Wiley’s highly acclaimed works have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Wiley has also received numerous awards for his artistic excellence including a U.S. Presidential Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2014.
In 2018 Wiley became the first Black artist commissioned to create an official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; President Obama himself selected him for this honour and the resulting portrait, featuring the former President against a background of lush green foliage and flowers, has become on the of the artist’s most celebrated works. The chrysanthemums reference the official flower of Chicago, the jasmine evokes Hawaii, where he spent the majority of his childhood, and the African blue lilies stand in for his late Kenyan father.
After discovering Dakar, Senegal on a layover, Wiley became enraptured with the city and in 2019 Wiley founded Black Rock Senegal, a multidisciplinary artist-in-residence program that invites artists from around the world to live and create work there. He has been dubbed by the art world the most successful black artist since street artist Jean Michel Basquiat. Wiley’s groundbreaking works have helped to redefine traditional portraiture styles by creating unique images that honour the Black experience through intricate details and bold compositions. By continually pushing boundaries, Wiley has been able to create a lasting legacy as one of the most important portrait artists of our time.
Scroll through the gallery above to see some of works exhibited at “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence” at the de Young Museum, as well as the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
To see a schedule of Wiley’s upcoming exhibitions, visit kehindewiley.com.