Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) is one of the foremost portraitists of the 21st century, redefining a genre rooted in privilege. Historically, only those with means could afford to have their portrait painted, leaving museum visitors staring into the faces of primarily the upper-crust of European society. Wiley, too, was educated in this tradition. “I was trained to paint the body by copying the Old Master paintings, so in some weird way this is a return to how I earned my chops — spending a lot of time at museums and staring at white flesh.”
Wiley upends the convention of painting portraits of the privileged, placing those unrepresented in “high art” as the subjects in his contemporary interpretation of European aristocratic portraits. He paints portraits of models he encounters on the street around the world, most often urban black and brown men. Inspired by the ornate backgrounds of Classical European portraits, his subjects are set against brightly colored, decorative backgrounds.
Inspired by Wiley’s unique style, Methow Valley third grade students in the Youth Arts Initiative program made their own stamps to create a patterned background showing texture. Next, they drew self-portraits. Teaching Artist Bethany Wray took the project a step further, exhibiting the pieces and guiding the students in a mini-critique session. Thirteen of the completed pieces are displayed at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, WA.
Wiley’s work was brought into the national consciousness when Barack Obama chose him to paint his official Presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. President Obama said at the portrait unveiling: “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 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.”
The near life-size portrait celebrates Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States of America. The former president is shown surrounded by nature and symbolic flowers that reflect both his personal and professional history. The chrysanthemums, for example, 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. The vibrant colors and casual pose of the portrait are decidedly modern, placing him firmly in the present day.
Learn more about Kehinde Wiley HERE.
Learn how to make your own Kehinde Wiley-inspired self-portrait with a patterned background HERE.
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