Born and raised on the streets of South Central Los Angeles, Kehinde Wiley was brought up by a single mother who often struggled to keep things afloat. Never the less, she had a dream. She believed in the arts. She loved her six children and would go to any length to make sure they fulfilled their passions. Her return on investment was strong, as all six ended up becoming huge success’. Kehinde’s mother, Freddie Mae, was a teacher who believed strongly in education. She made sure her son was able to attend summers abroad in the Soviet Union outside of Leningrad, at the mere age of eleven. Essentially, when all odds were against any young person born in South Central during this time, Freddie’s very bold moves were instrumental in the making and shaping of her son, of one the world’s most important contemporary artists.
“It was the defining moment of hip-hop: the violence, anti-social behavior and streets on fire. I was fortunate because my mother was very much focused on getting me, my twin brother, and other siblings out of the hood. On weekends I would go to art classes at a conservatory. After school, we were on lockdown. It was something I hated, obviously, but in the end it was a lifesaver. In art school, I just liked being able to make stuff look like other stuff. It made me feel important. Back then, it was basic apples and fruit and understanding light and shadow. From there I did the body and a lot of self-portraiture. So much of what I do now is a type of self-portraiture. As an undergrad at the Art Institute of San Francisco, I really honed in on the technical aspects of painting and being a masterful painter. And then at Yale it became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity, etc.”
My passion for art stemmed at birth, and thank god my parents have very innovative taste. I grew up, surrounded by modern and contemporary works on the walls of my home. Fifteen years ago, they met Julie and Bennett Roberts of Roberts and Tilton Gallery, based out of Los Angeles. The duo was representing this very unique, up and coming artist named Kehinde Wiley. My father fell in love and convinced my mother to invest in a massive painting, which is one of Wiley’s most important works and now is on lend to Kehinde’s traveling show. Wiley painted, and still paints African American men, and occasionally women, in very seducing, stoic, regal poses, with distinguished backgrounds, that once you lie your eyes on, you are guaranteed to fall in love with. His recognizable pieces, well, the colors are magnetizing. Each of his subjects are fascinating, leaving Wiley’s collectors and fans mesmerized. Considered a portraitist, he explained “my works are comparable to a modern version of John Singer Sargent,” an American portraiture of the Edwardian era. Kehinde continues, sharing “I consider our works alike because of our similar school of thought. Sargent, he is someone who is born in America and very familiar with the kind portraiture that came out of society painting in America, but then he goes off to Paris and becomes much more familiarized with Europe, and starts working in London, and I think his confusion with not only regional style, but the period style has a lot with keeping with my own pursuit. It is the idea that being born in America, but traveled, allows you to drive a much more international reach.”
Wiley and I became friendly a few years back, in Washington D.C. My mother and I flew to the nation’s capital, alongside Julie and Bennett to support Wiley, as he was being honored at the Blair House on behalf of the Office of Arts in Embassies department, among other notable figures in his industry. Also known as the Presidents guest house, my family has a rather large collection of his paintings and drawings, hence our interpersonal relationship, and fresh off a flight from Europe, I would not have missed this for the world. The following day, at a brunch hosted by Joff Mosukawa, a collector of Wiley’s, Kehinde and I bonded over a cigarette and from that moment on, I knew that I was not only a fan of his large scale works, but of the man himself. Indeed, he is a creative genius. Soft spoken, yet very opinionated, Wiley and I also caught up in Seattle at the Seattle Art Museum, where his traveling show was based for a few months last year (currently, it is in Pheonix, at the Pheonix Art Museum).
After his grand photo shoot for the cover of Toys for Boys just last week, and post-election depression, I conducted this interview from the office in Miami. Kehinde is rather secretive about his Spring show, but he tells us “it involves a portrait, but is a major departure from my typical style. It has some new influence, which changes the way paintings look. It is hard for me to talk about, but it keeps with some signature aspects of my current works, yet has new influences.”
We also discussed “The World Stage,” an ongoing series created by Wiley, where immerses himself into global cultures, from Brazil to Haiti to Israel to Jamaica and beyond. Kehinde chooses the subjects on the streets, and paints his master works, all based around these various cultures. When I asked him about the continuation of this project, he said “I conceived it as a body of work that has a beginning, but no ending. I can’t imagine where it would end. There are always new ideas about how American pop culture, art history and hip hop, and how they all converge in one big conversation about different parts of the globe. As I work and travel, I see so many different, fascinating aspects, and how do you imagine painting in a new way in the 21st century. I think rather than having a sharp ending, it will fuse into a secondary conversation, where ideas morph rather than come to a stop. Much of what I have done in the past is to begin conversations that start other questions, expanding works that I have built upon, including new direction that started on the black American street, analyzing masculinity, dress code, body language and art history. Then I am moving out from that into an International conversation. How is that set of concerns different from West Africa or South East Asia? These concerns are much more keeping with my trajectory. It’s much more of an evolution of ideas. It is better than having a sharp break. but a series of provocations and you ultimately never know what the answer is.”
Speaking of the World Stage, the world has, in fact, become Wiley’s oyster. Kehinde now has three studios where he creates his magic, from Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Beijing and spanning to Dakar in Senegal. He loves his life of travel and “taking advantage of the freedom that art provides, because I can work from anywhere. I have a love hate relationship with New York. I love being here, but I thrive most artistically with less distractions, hence I perform best when I am away from here. This is a city where there is always something going on. You are always being drawn out, where in Beijing and Dakar, my creative life is much more focused because my social life is more relaxed.”
Kehinde’s works may also seem rather familiar, considering his magnificent paintings hung on the walls, in the back drop of FOX’s hit show Empire. Also, let’s just put it out there by mentioning: it is not his first time at the rodeo when it comes to fashion. Most recently, he partnered with Givenhcy’s Ricardo Tisci on a portrait series of Women, wearing couture gowns designed by Tisci himself. “Givenchy was amazing. It fit quite naturally with my desire to have that discussion with beauty, excess and couture. The short answer is there are no immediate collaborations en-route, but never say never.” Wiley also collaborated with Puma for the World Cup. “I am very careful about collaborations with clothing brands, because I want them to be effective. My work with the World Cup was in Africa. It was an earth changing situation. It was incredible and an honor to work with Puma to celebrate sports, Africa and the athletes and art, in one big sweeping statement.” Wiley also uses his own archives of fabrics that inspire the back drops of his works, and has a tailor use the materials to make his recognizable suits, shirts, shorts and pants.
From time to time, you will also come across Kehinde’s works at major auction houses, like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Wondering how it feels from the perspective of an artist? He tells us “most of my peers and working artist have a mixed relationship with the auction houses. Obviously they are part of the eco-system where people sell and buy art. It is a circulatory system. Things have to move. Yet, there is a danger. It can undermine the integrity and value of your work when prices may be too high or too low, artists can be speculated upon. Artists are cautious. I’m also a realist, if I want to participate in this contemporary art market, I have to recognize the very real mechanisms of delivery. There would be no studio rent paid if not for collectors, there would be no way to get the art from my studios to the galleries if there were not the people whom to take a financial interest in my work and I need to be very mature about it.”
Thus far, many of his dreams have come true. His mother had a vision to instill creativity, and thank god, enrolled him in programs where he learned incredible tools. As a child, Kehinde dreamt of becoming an artist. Educated at the best universities that our country has to offer, now, at just thirty-nine years old, he is celebrated, honored and recognized across the globe. When I asked who he would love to paint, he kept it simple, telling me how his passion was “painting people who aren’t celebrated. People who surprise me on the streets or the train. The opportunity to take a moment and explode it in to something with gravitas and celebration. This transformation between anonymous person minding their own business and trying to get to work, who I stop, they become my subject, and to me, that is much more powerful when we see them on the great museum walls throughout the world.”