NEW YORK – Kehinde Wiley was already well into his influential art career when his portrait of Barack Obama — arms crossed, perched on a chair amid brilliant foliage — was unveiled in 2018. But there’s no doubt it changed the artist’s life.
Here’s one way he describes the shift: Now, should he ever show up at the bank and realize he’s forgotten his ID — which hasn’t happened yet, but still — he could say: “You know that portrait of Obama? I’m that guy, and I didn’t bring my ID, so if you could just Google that…”
But Wiley, proud as he is of the groundbreaking work — an official portrait of a Black president by a Black artist — does wonder how long he’ll be referred to in that context.
“I wonder if I will ever be able to do anything that lives up to the gravity of that moment,” he says. “Everybody wants to be seen in a number of different contexts … but I mean, what a great project to be involved in. So, come on, here’s the world’s smallest violin, playing just for me.”
If Wiley, 46, is on a mission to make sure he’s remembered for a lot more, he seems well on his way. With shows currently on both U.S. coasts, another headed to Paris, and growing artistic bases in Africa, he truly seems to be everywhere all at once.
Just take the last few months. In March, he was in San Francisco for the U.S premiere of “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence” at the de Young Museum, a powerful display of massive paintings and sculptures exploring anti-Black violence in a global context. The museum has set up dedicated spaces for attendees who need a breather from the intensity of the show, which runs until Oct. 15.
Meanwhile, at the Sean Kelly gallery in New York, he’s just opened “HAVANA,” running through June 17, focusing on circus performers and carnival street dancers in Cuba.
In between, he was in Africa, where he’s been doing everything from negotiating prices with vendors to selecting stone for the floors while building his second artist residency campus on the continent, Black Rock Nigeria, in Calabar (the first is in Senegal).
Wiley is also at work on a new portrait show on Black heads of state at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, scheduled for September.
With homes in Senegal, Nigeria, New York City and the Catskills, plus a studio in Brooklyn, not to mention roots in his native Los Angeles — including his mother and twin brother — Wiley is not an easy man to pin down for an interview. But he was generous with his time — and anecdotes — as he recently showed The Associated Press around “HAVANA.” Later that night, a passerby peering into the gallery would have seen the airy space packed to the gills with admirers for an opening reception.
Wiley had just returned from Ethiopia, and before that Nigeria. The rhythm of his travels, he says, goes like this: “You’ll be on the road working on something and you’ll be in some amazing place and there’s a couple of down days, and then you’re (again) in some extraordinary part of the world. I guess work and play are all kind of intertwined. But I’m also incredibly hungry for new experiences.”
Wiley’s projects often overlap and intersect over a number of years. His current Cuba show stems from two visits there, in 2015 and in 2022.
It features new paintings, works on paper and a three-screen film downstairs, exploring the phenomenon of the “carnivalesque.” On this particular day, with the opening only hours away, he was still actively discussing changing the font for the film’s subtitles.
During his 2015 visit, Wiley visited the Escuela Nacional de Circo Cuba — a circus school. He became intrigued by the idea of “not fully formed technicians, this metaphor of not quite being quite perfect at creating magic.” During his second visit, he met with performers from Raices Profundas, a nearly 50-year-old dance ensemble that performs in the Yoruba tradition.
Just like Obama’s portrait features, in its background, flowers from places of significance in the president’s life, the backgrounds of the Cuba paintings are comprised of “things from Africa that found their way to the Americas like sugar cane, yams, cola nut, okra … All of these fit into the narrative of African presence in the Americas.”
Wiley’s method of working has been much discussed — he has studio assistants work on the backgrounds, and then he comes in to execute the figure, or figures. There are variations, though, “moments when I’m super excited about doing that figure and the crew is already working on something else, so I’ll just go ahead and they’ll catch up with me. Now that I’ve got studios all over the place, you can swing it both ways.”
This gallery show is more intimate than his massive show in San Francisco, which has drawn significant attendance, museum officials say. In that show, portraits of young Black people in positions of rest (or in some interpretations, death) inhabit settings that recall famous artworks of the Western world. On the audio track, one of the most moving sections is commentary from Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, who was killed by police at a BART station in Oakland in 2009.
Museumgoer La Tanya Carmical, 66, of Castro Valley, was struck by that commentary, particularly “the tragedy in her voice.” Carmical took a Friday in March to see the show, where she spent four hours. She was particularly moved by an image of a man laying on rocks.
“For me it was the hands, the way they’re positioned,” she said. “I took a couple of pictures. And then (Wiley’s) color — these are just beautifully colored, the skin tones. It’s the hands, it’s the color, it’s the lighting.”
The show is not only 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’s not limited to a particular country or region. There’s a universality to the ways in which Black people have been mistreated and the violence that has happened to us from colonialism forward.”
For this show, models were found in Senegal, Jackson says. The way Wiley chooses his models depends on the project —sometimes he recruits them on the streets, whereas in Cuba it took research and outreach.
Does he remember everyone? The artist laughs.
“That’s a lot to ask,” he notes, standing amid his Cuba portraits. “But yeah, certain people stand out.”
He points to a woman in yellow, a street dancer.
“I remember her being much more timid in her self-presentation, but then this radical transformation happening when she was onstage,” he says. When a visitor says she looks wary, he notes that “a lot of it is direction, right? There’s me telling them what to do, and there’s how every human being is going to respond. Portraiture in some ways reveals how different people respond to the same direction.”
Which brings us back to Obama.
When 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 him into this set of formulaic poses,” Wiley says, “and he’s like, ‘You know what? Stop. Let me take care of this.’ And the pose that you see him in, is when he starts to take over. And there’s a fluidity to the photo shoot.”
“And when I got to the editing,” the artist chuckles, “it was like, ‘Yeah. I should have just let him handle it!’”
Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.