New York — NEW YORK (AP) – Kehinde Wiley was already well into his impressive art career when his portrait of Barack Obama – arms crossed, sitting in a chair amid glittering foliage – was unveiled in 2018. But there’s no doubt that it changed the artist’s life.
Here’s one way he describes the change: Now, should he ever show up at a bank and realize he’s forgotten his ID—which hasn’t happened yet, but still—he can say: “You Know that picture of Obama? I’m that guy, and I didn’t bring my ID, so if you can Google it…”
But Wiley, proud as he is of the groundbreaking work — an official portrait of a black president by a black artist — wonders how long he will be referred to in that context.
“I wonder if I’ll ever be able to do anything that lives up to the gravity of that moment,” he says. “Everybody wants to be seen in many different contexts … But I mean, what a cool project to be involved in. So, here’s the world’s smallest violin, playing just for me.”
If Willie, 46, is on a mission to make sure he’s fondly remembered, he looks to be well on his way. With shows currently on both US coasts, another headed to Paris, and growing artistic bases in Africa, he has truly appeared everywhere at once.
Take the last few months only. In March, he was in San Francisco for the US premiere of “Kehinde Wiley: An Archeology of Silence” at the De Young Museum, a powerful display of monumental paintings and sculptures exploring anti-Black violence in a global context. The museum has set up dedicated spaces for attendees who need a respite from the intensity of the show, which runs until October 15.
Meanwhile, at the Shawn Kelly Gallery in New York, she opened “Havana” through June 17, focusing on circus performers and carnival street dancers in Cuba.
In between, he was in Africa, working from negotiating prices with vendors to selecting stone for floors, while in Calabar (the first is in Senegal) on the continent, Black Rock was his second artist in Nigeria. Was building a residency complex.
Wiley is also working on a new portrait show on the Black Heads of State at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, scheduled in September.
With homes in Senegal, Nigeria, New York City and the Catskills, as well as a studio in Brooklyn, not to mention roots in his native Los Angeles — including his mother and twin brother — Willie is an easy one to pin down for an interview. Man is not. But he was generous with his time — and anecdotes — as he recently showed The Associated Press around “Havana.” Later that night, a passerby peeking into the gallery would have noticed that the airy space was packed with fans to welcome the opening.
Willie had recently returned from Ethiopia and before that from Nigeria. He says his travel cadence is like this: “You’ll be on the road working on something and you’ll be in some amazing place and down for a few days, and then you’ll be[again]in some extraordinary part of the world.” . I think work and play are intertwined in all sorts of ways. But I’m also incredibly hungry for new experiences.”
Wiley’s projects often overlap and intersect over several years. His current Cuba shows stem from two visits there in 2015 and 2022.
It features new paintings, works on paper, and a three-screen film below, which explores the “carnivalesque” phenomenon.
During his 2015 visit, Wiley visited the Escuela Nacional de Circo Cuba – a circus school. He became intrigued by the idea of ”not a fully formed technician, this metaphor of not being perfect at making magic”. During his second visit, he met artists from Rice Profundus, a nearly 50-year-old dance group that performs in the Yoruba tradition.
As Obama’s portrait features, in its background, flowers from places of importance in the president’s life, the background of Cuban portraits includes “things from Africa that found their way into America such as sugar cane, yam, kola nut, okra. … All of these fit into the narrative of the African presence in America.”
There has been much discussion of the way Wiley works – he has studio assistants work on the background, and then he comes in to execute the figure, or the figures. However, there are variations, “moments when I’m too excited to do that figure and the crew is already working on something else, so I’ll just go ahead and they’ll catch me. Now that I have every The place is studio, so you can swing it both ways.
Museum officials say this gallery show is more intimate than their massive show in San Francisco, which has drawn significant attendance. In that show, portraits of young black people in a state of rest (or in some interpretations, death) lay in settings recalling famous artworks from the Western world. On the audio track, one of the most moving sections is a commentary by Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, who was killed by police at a BART station in Oakland in 2009.
Museumgoer La Tanya Carmichael, 66, of Castro Valley, was struck by that comment, especially “the tragedy in her voice.” Carmichael took a Friday in March to see the show, where he spent four hours. She was particularly moved by the image of a man lying on the rocks.
“For me it was the hands, the way they’re positioned,” she said. “I took some pictures. And then (Vile’s) colors—they’re just beautiful colors, skin tones. It’s the hand, it’s the color, it’s the light.”
The show isn’t just about anti-Black violence in the United States.
“It’s a story of anti-blackness globally,” says Abram Jackson, director of interpretation at The De Young. “It is not limited to any particular country or region. There is a universality in the way black people have been mistreated and the violence that has been going on since colonialism.
The models for the show met in Senegal, says Jackson. The way Wiley chooses his models depends on the project – sometimes he recruits them from the streets, while research and outreach are needed in Cuba.
Does he remember everyone? The artist laughs.
“It’s a lot to ask,” he notes, standing among his Cuban paintings. “But yeah, some people stand out.”
He points to a woman in yellow, a street dancer.
“I remember she was very timid in her self-presentation, but then there was this sea change when she was on stage,” he says. When a visitor says she looks wary, he notes that “there’s a lot of direction in that, isn’t there? There’s me telling them what to do, and there’s how each human is going to react.” Portraiture in some ways explains how different people react to the same direction.”
Which brings us back to Obama.
While Wiley was photographing the former president, the artist did what he always does: He directed. “Turn this way.” “Look here.”
But Obama soon grew impatient. “I’m trying to box her into this set of formulas,” Wiley says, “and she’s like, ‘You know what? stop. Let me take care of it.’ And the pose you see him in is when he starts to take over. And there’s a fluidity to the photo shoot.
“And when I went to edit,” the artist laughs, “it was like, ‘Yeah. I should’ve let her handle it!’”