Kehinde Wiley (born February 28, 1977) is a Nigerian-American portrait painter based in New York City, who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of black people. He was commissioned in 2017 to paint a portrait of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which has portraits of all the US presidents. He is the first African American to complete a portrait of a president for the National Portrait Gallery.
Wiley’s portrait of Obama was unveiled on February 12, 2018. He and Amy Sherald, whose portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama was simultaneously unveiled, are the first black artists to paint official portraits of the president or First Lady for the National Portrait Gallery.
Some observers criticized the selection of Wiley for the commission because he had earlier produced two painting variations of Judith Beheading Holofernes, in which he depicts African-American women holding the severed heads of white women. Wiley said that this is a “play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing”.
Wiley was born a twin in Los Angeles, California on February 28, 1977, to Isaiah D. Obot, a Nigerian immigrant and Freddie Mae Wiley, a Texas native and alumna of the University of California. As the fifth of his mother’s five children, Wiley’s father abandoned him and his mother by returning to Nigeria, leaving Freddie Mae to survive on welfare and the proceeds from her thrift shop in South Central Los Angeles. She recognized her son’s talent, enrolling him in an art class at a local college when he was eleven and later encouraging him to travel to Russia to briefly study painting.
In 1999, Wiley earned his bachelor’s degree at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and received a scholarship to complete his master’s degree in fine arts (MFA) at Yale University in 2001. While at SFAI, he recalled focusing on the “technical aspects of painting and being a masterful painter.” At Yale, he was “much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity, etc.” His colorful, large canvas paintings are easily distinguishable, usually featuring black subjects who are photo-realistically rendered. They also often heroically portrayed with backgrounds of intricate ornate or baroque patterns similar to elaborate wallpaper. His black subjects range from common folk to pop stars, all consistently given a sense of dignity. Some of his work borders on the absurd or comedic with black subjects dressed in historical costumes striking poses à la Napoleon that includes conquering heroes on horses, saints, and biblical figures. His work also broadens to sculpture and stained glass.
In 2002, Wiley displayed his first solo exhibition at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, Illinois. He has since showcased his work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art (Richmond); Jewish Museum and Brooklyn Museum in New York City, New York; Phoenix Art Museum (Arizona); Toledo Museum of Art (Ohio); Seattle Art Museum in Washington State; Oklahoma City Museum of Art; ArtSpace in San Antonio; Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Arts (Philadelphia); Stephen Freidman Gallery in London, UK; and Daniel Templon in Paris, France, among others. His paintings currently hang at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota, Los Angeles County Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin, Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan, High Museum of Art (Atlanta, Georgia), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City, Missouri), Wadsworth Athenaeum (Hartford, Connecticut), and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Far eclipsing his provocative and controversial Judith Beheading Holofernes painting that was exhibited in Beijing, China in 2006, Wiley’s portrait of President Obama was perhaps his greatest achievement. Unveiled at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery on February 12, 2018, the portrait made national news headlines because of its break with staid tradition. Obama, who selected Wiley to paint his portrait, is seated with his arms folded in a dark suit but with an open collar, nearly enwrapped in green foliage and flowers, mostly chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago).
Wiley, who is openly gay, is one of the most celebrated painters of his generation. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.