Many Americans heard of Kehinde Wiley, the artist behind the official portrait of President Barack Obama, for the first time when his latest work was unveiled Monday at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.
Wiley is the first African-American artist commissioned to paint the portrait of a U.S. president. He told The Guardian in 2017 that he viewed the project as a “huge responsibility.” Its background — a wall of bright leaves — breaks from the conventions of previous presidential portraits, which often depict the Commander-in-Chief before a darker, earth-toned background or inside a room of the White House.
Time Magazine offers a concise summary of Wiley’s background:
Wiley was born South Central, Los Angeles in 1977, where he was raised by a single mother and was one of six siblings. His mother was a linguist, and he grew up surrounded by books. Wiley took his first art lesson at age 11, and at age 12, in 1989, Wiley was one of 50 American children who went to live in Russia at the Center for U.S./U.S.S.R. Initiatives. There, he studied art and Russian language. He eventually attended the San Francisco Art Institute, and studied art in graduate school at Yale.
He is based in New York, but has studios around the world in Beijing and West Africa, where his father is from.
The official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, created by Baltimore-based Amy Sherald, was also unveiled at the museum on Monday.
One of Wiley’s older paintings has received renewed attention, as it provocatively reimagines a Renaissance-era painting of the heroic biblical figure Judith beheading the evil enemy commander, Holofernes, and thus saving her people.
Wiley’s work, titled “Judith and Holofernes,” shows a black woman holding a sword in one hand and the disembodied head of a white woman in the other. Several outlets, including TheWrap and the Washington Examiner, drew attention to the piece’s viral revival on social media.
This particular painting comes from a collection called “An Economy of Grace,” released in 2012. A second painting in the collection bearing the same title (sources differ at times between “Judith and Holofernes” and “Judith Beheading Holofernes”) depicts its hero in a strapless blue dress rather than a regal, gloved gown.
“It’s sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing,” Wiley said in a 2012 interview with New York Magazine. He revealed that the subjects were two women he knew in real life:
[B]ack to the lady with the severed head. Like most Wiley paintings, this one has a backstory: Her name is Triesha Lowe, Wiley explains. She’s a stay-at-home mom whom Wiley found at the Fulton Mall. Her pose is a riff on classical depictions by Caravaggio and Gentileschi, of the biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes. And the severed head? “She’s one of my assistants.”
Wiley’s website describes the collection as ” a celebration of black women, creating a rightful place for them within art history, which has to date been an almost exclusively white domain.”
“Wiley is known for taking the saints, prophets, and heroes of Old Master paintings and replacing them with black men and women dressed in hip-hop or African attire,” the Atlantic Journal-Constitution reported.
“What I choose to do is to take people who happen to look like me — black and brown people all over the world, increasingly — and to allow them to occupy that field of power,” Wiley told CNN in a 2015 interview.
The Huffington Post reported in 2012 about the “Grace” exhibit that was on display at the time at a New York City gallery: “You don’t need to know any of those paintings to get the general idea: Wiley is reappropriating past images to create new ones, with the intent of empowering his subjects.”
Former President Obama praised Wiley’s style at the Smithsonian Monday: “What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege,” he said.