Artwork: President Barack Obama
Artist: Kehinde Wiley
Materials: oil on Canvas
Location: Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery
Kehinde Wiley is contemporary painter known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African Americans posing as famous/traditional historical paintings of rulers and kings as a way of carving out a new storyline within a western tradition which, as a boy, left Wiley feeling ‘Alienated and left out of the historical narrative.’
Wiley’s portraits, although copy the stance of better known works from the cannon of art history, take their contemporary spin by painting his models in their everyday clothing and place them against highly decorative floral or patterned backdrops.
Pictured, is the artist’s portrait of former US President, Barack Obama after being selected by the former US President personally in 2017 shortly before he left office. The portrait was commissioned by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, USA.
Unlike Wiley’s traditional trademark as mentioned above, this portrait does not include an underlying art historical reference, but some of the flowers in the background carry special meaning for Obama. 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.
Wiley has been dubbed by the art world as the most successful black artist since street artist, Jean Michel Basquiat.
Colour is a vital component to Wiley as has he believes it plays an important role in the way we think of things and how they are received. The artist has stated he uses his vibrate colours to rewrite the continued negative narrative and impression given in media culture to black citizens of the world. The colour and scale in which Wiley works adds to the artist’s mission in showing the power of his message.
Wiley became the first African American artist, along with artist Amy Sherald, who painted the former first lady Michele Obama, to be commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery’s official portraits of a President or First Lady.
Director Kim Sajet said of artists Wiley and Sherald:
“For 50 years, the National Portrait Gallery has told the story of America through the people who have impacted this country’s history and culture,” Sajet said. “We are thrilled to present to the nation these remarkable portraits of our 44th president, Barack Obama, and former First Lady, Michelle Obama, painted by two of the country’s most dynamic contemporary artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. As a museum of history and art, we have learned over the past half-century that the best portraiture has the power to bring world leaders into dialogue with everyday Americans. These two paintings fall into that category, and we believe they will serve as an inspiration for generations to come.”
Jo McLaughlin July 2020
If you have a spare few minutes and want to learn a little more about the commission, then the following video is excellent:
For more on the artist, then I would recommend the following:
Artist Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57SXWs8N4gU
Artist lecture on his work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9rKCXw17X0
Do you have a favourite Wiley work? Let me know in the comments below!