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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.