Hip Hop Meets Renaissance: Urban Portraits

Several months ago I wrote two posts about the art of portraiture, promising more in the future. After all this time you may not remember the discussion so you can link to posts one and two here.

Kehinde Wiley portrait painting

Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps

Kehinde Wiley is a painter known for his portraits that recast Old Master paintings, using contemporary black people as his models. Dressed in hip hop clothing, they can be found in his paintings atop a charging steed or emulating the pose of a 17th century nobleman. He titles these new pieces with the names of the paintings on which they are based.

Portrait painting by Kehinde Wiley

Willem van Heythuysen

Working with a film crew and armed with reproductions of historic paintings Wiley approaches people on the street, inviting them to select a painting and to assume the pose of the main character – this act of selecting a pose is an empowering one for the subject. He then documents the process, photographing the subject and returning to the studio to complete the painting. In the final painting he retains the realistic image and pose but removes the backgrounds, replacing it with decorative motifs culled from other times and cultures.

Portrait painting by Kehinde Wiley

Anthony of Padua

Raised in South Central Los Angeles in the era of the Rodney King beating and riots, Wiley saw few people of color in the museums he visited as a child. His own training was based on copying Renaissance masterworks. It was a natural progression to move on to making art that merged traditional historic portraiture with his contemporary experiences as an African-American male, and in the process raising issues about race and power.

Kehinde Wiley painting

Three Graces

I found that this quote from the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York beautifully sums up Wiley’s aims:

“By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, wealth, prestige, and history to subject matter drawn from the urban fabric… Wiley’s larger-than-life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting, often blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men.”

Kehinde Wiley portrait painting

Jupiter and Thetis

To find out more about Kehinde Wiley visit his website. I suggest you explore his project “The World Stage,” where he travels to Haiti, Brazil, Nigeria, India and China, inviting people to become part of his work.

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