Kehinde Wiley’s Iconic Barack Obama Portrait Arrives in Houston

Kehinde Wiley (photo by Brad Ogbonna)

OWhen Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald unveiled their stunning portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama on February 12, 2018, they caused a stir, and the overwhelming popular response led to calls for a national tour of the two paintings. The duo also made history as the first African American artist to create official portraits of an American President and First Lady. Wiley’s portrait of the former president and Sherald’s portrait of Mrs. Obama are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston until May 30.

The roots of 1980s Los Angeles

Wiley, who is openly gay, led a uniquely American life. Born in Los Angeles in 1977, he was the fifth of six children, raised by a single mother on welfare who eventually became a teacher.

“I first went to art school when I was about 11, and I also went to major museums in Southern California,” Wiley recalls. “I grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the late 80s and was really part of the environment that was driven by some of the things that define hip hop: the violence, the anti-social behavior, the streets in fire.

“I was lucky because my mother was very focused on me, my twin brother and other siblings outside the neighborhood. On the weekends, I would go to art classes at a conservatory. After school we were locked in. It was something I hated, obviously, but in the end it saved my life.

Wiley completed his undergraduate studies at the Art Institute of San Francisco in 1999. His talent and drive led him to attend Yale University, where he graduated with an art degree in 2001. around identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity, etc. notes Wiley.

He is now one of the most
acclaimed and successful visual artists, with studios in New York and China. His portrait of the former president is his most famous work.

Wiley’s paintings depict people of color in the grand settings of Old Master paintings. He recently signed an exhibition entitled The Prelude at the National Gallery in London, who described his unique style as follows:

Her work references the canon of European portraiture by positioning contemporary Black Sitters, from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds, in the poses of the original historical, religious or mythological figures. His images – part quotation, part intervention – raise questions about power, privilege, identity, and above all underline the absence or relegation of black figures within European art.

Kehinde Wiley, barack obamaoil on canvas, 2018, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Recognize invisible people

Wiley’s work particularly impressed one contemporary art lover: former President Barack Obama. “I have always been struck by… the extent to which [Wiley’s portraits] challenged our conventional views of power and privilege, and how he would take extraordinary care, precision and vision to recognize the beauty, grace and dignity of the people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them on a big stage, on a grand scale, and compel us to look at them and see them in a way that they weren’t so often,” Mr. Obama observed.

For Wiley, the two-year process of creating a presidential likeness on canvas was a reversal of his usual artistic practice.

“Before Barack Obama was elected, my job was so much about painting the helpless,” Wiley notes. “Painting these people who come from many black and brown underserved communities around the world. What I did was ask complete strangers (who were often on their way to work or minding their own business) to sit down for me, to be in these portraits. And often, those lucky moments turned into the epic paintings you’d see in some of the world’s great museums.

“I think the act of transformation that happens is completely different from what happens in a presidential portrait,” says Wiley. “Here you are probably dealing with the most powerful person in the world. And you are dealing with real power. Not metaphorically, but its representation. And you talk about the contours and historical realization of grace, of power, in its most visceral and raw form.

Break the mold

Wiley’s painting presents a stark contrast to the formality of earlier presidential portraits. “It really broke the mould,” observes Dorothy Moss, curator of paintings and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, who commissioned Mr. and Mrs. Obama’s paintings and organized their nationwide tour.

“If you are the first black artist, you do it differently because it is your personal point of view and you have to make a statement,” comments Taina Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and art and l History at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Both artists are also art historians. They studied art history,” says Caragol. “They are very interested in the power of representation and how to redirect and rethink the narrative that is in the manual. They were very aware of the statements these works could make.

“The ability to paint the first African-American president of the United States doesn’t get any better than that,” observes Wiley.

The Obama Portrait Tour is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston until May 30. Thursdays are MFAH’s free days, and portraits can also be viewed for free on Thursdays. More information: mfah.org

This article appears in the May 2022 issue of OutSmart magazine.