Kehinde Wiley Has Transformed Art History—And Now He’s Making Opportunities For Fellow Creators

“It’s about a small group of people who are going to spend time here, but it’s also about a message that can be beamed out to the world.”

One of the preeminent artists of our day, Kehinde Wiley has forever changed the genre of portraiture by introducing African American subjects and other people of color to the tradition of old master portraiture as known in the art of of Western world, which typically accorded those distinguished positions to white people only. In what one writer has called a “signature subversive-historical” style, these paintings, also often known for emphasizing women, bestow upon their larger-than-life subjects all the grandeur they deserve, showing them against distinguished backdrops, sometimes drawing on those from art historical examples, but often in the same clothes they wear on the street.

In 2019, Wiley launched a new initiative that gives back to the artistic and creative community: the Black Rock Senegal residency program, which hosts artists, writers, and filmmakers for stays of up to three months at a luxurious facility in Dakar, at the westernmost point of the African continent. To support the initiative, the artist is offering a limited edition print, Head of a Young Girl Veiled with Flowers, exclusively through Absolut Art; all proceeds will go to support the nonprofit residency program. The print shows an androgynous figure, profile all but hidden behind the hood of a lime-green sweatshirt; she is seemingly in a self-protective pose, standing against an eye-popping floral background of cherry-red and lime-green.

“I chose Young Girl Veiled with Flowers especially for Black Rock because it speaks to the layered complexities of sight and knowledge, provoking inquiry by sitting at the intersection between the masculine and feminine, the historic and the present,” says the artist. “It draws inspiration from a beautiful and terrible past and seeks to posit a new vocabulary for how we can all move forward as thinkers, artists, and citizens.”

In the eighteen years since he earned a master’s degree in fine arts at Yale, Wiley has risen to an unmatched position in the global art world. In 2018, he was granted the high honor of painting the official portrait of President Barack Obama. That canvas, described as “subtly savvy” by the New York Times’s co-chief art critic Holland Cotter, now resides at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, beside an array of portraits of past presidents. Showing Obama against a shining backdrop with flowers that are symbolic of his heritage and his history, the boldly rendered portrait dramatically stands out from its sober predecessors.

One of Wiley’s newest works, unveiled just this fall, leaps boldly into one of the most heated debates of our times: What do public monuments stand for, and who deserves to be memorialized? This work, like the Obama portrait and his portraits overall, engages with art history only to undermine it and add new perspectives. Standing at the Crossroads of the World in Times Square, Wiley’s first piece of public art, and his largest sculpture to date, shows a young black man mounted on a horse, with all the dignity and drama of the Southern equestrian monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers that it responds to. The man portrayed in the work, which stands twenty-seven feet high and is titled Rumors of War, wears his hair in dreadlocks and sports a hooded sweatshirt and ripped jeans. The piece will ultimately take up residence in Richmond, Virginia, where the artist conceived of it, and where it will live alongside a number of Confederate monuments.

Beyond presidential portraiture and high-profile public art, Wiley has racked up serious art world credibility, his work appearing in museums like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among many others throughout the country. He has also achieved pop-cultural stature, with his artworks appearing on the hit TV show “Empire,” one of the highest-rated shows on television.

But Wiley doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels. He talks about the Black Rock program as a stimulus and a challenge. “I think we’re just going to have to create a community where we’re inspired by each other, and pushing each other,” he said in an interview in the New York Times, where he also indicated that his ambitions for Black Rock are just as ambitious as his aims for his own work: “It’s about a small group of people who are going to spend time here, but it’s also about a message that can be beamed out to the world.”