The Man Of Many Colors: An Interview with Kehinde Wiley
It’s not often that a man can drift seamlessly between worlds, existing simultaneously in realms that rarely meet, but Kehinde Wiley is not your average man. A surfer between the kingdoms of high art and hip hop; a South Central, L.A.-born black man with a degree from Yale; a grand scale portrait painter of real people from around the world — Wiley’s career has strung together words that most could never even imagine in the same sentence. With studios in New York, Los Angeles, Beijing and soon Senegal, Kehinde Wiley has reinvented history with his large-scale, vibrant and overwhelmingly colorful portraits of real people. He finds faces that inspire him anywhere from a mall in Brooklyn, to a favela in Brazil, to a village in the Congo. By painting these otherwise normal people in the style of grand portraiture, an art form once reserved for white kings and aristocrats, Wiley has created a genre that, much like himself, finds beauty in the contradictions.
What originally drew you to painting portraits?
I began studying art when I was a kid. Around the age of eleven, my mother sent me to art school to keep me out of the streets of L.A. in the 80s, it was South Central, Los Angeles. Ultimately, it was a way of protecting me and my twin brother at the time, but what evolved out of that was an understanding of the technical aspects of painting and the history. We would go visit museums in Southern California. I started looking at the 17th and 18th century British portraits in the collections at the Huntington Library, noticing some of the features of that portraiture and recognizing aspects of the fraudulent, the fake, the pomp and circumstance that surround that sort of portrait making. I didn’t understand all of its traffics at the time and I still don’t think I do today, but a portrait is very powerful in the sense that it was once understood, it still has an elusive quality. Fast forward many years and I’m still working in that vocabulary, that narrative, trying to bring life into something as basic as portrait painting.
When you’re scouting models for your portraits, what attracts you to a person?
Well I think that what attracts me to some- one in the streets is the same thing that attracts me to a great work of art. It’s that arresting sensation that you get when you turn the corner at a museum and you see a piece of art that gives you goose bumps. There is something equivalent in street casting, whether it be on the streets of New York, or São Paulo or Sri Lanka, it’s that de- sire to find that “alpha presence.” A person who has that self-possession, a magic that you know when you see it but you can’t re- ally describe it. That’s 80 percent of what makes a painting work, it’s that personality that you’re working with in the field. My job is to be faithful to that moment but also allow it to be in conversation with the broader history of painting and the revolution of culture, whether it be the presence of hip hop on the American streets or the presence through- out the world increasingly.
“My paintings are loud and bombastic and they refuse to go away”
Are there neighborhoods you find yourself drawn to?
Most of the neighborhoods that are featured in the exhibitions come from the more under served communities. Shedding light on areas that don’t necessarily get the same attention, the places that you don’t see in great museums around the world, and great joys of mine. For example, going into a favela in Brazil, or recently Trenchtown, Jamaica, these are places that you don’t usually see listed on the site maps of portraits.
Are people ever skeptical when you approach them?
I think skepticism is completely normal and healthy. I get it a lot around the world. And what’s interesting is that in America that skepticism is there, but there is also this very American reaction to this project— they won’t be as surprised. They have this “of course you found me,” just add water, age of reality television, instant celebrity response. It’s interesting to see the Western response to this project as a force in the world and also those smaller places, where people might not get that kind of attention. When the cameras and the lights and the microphones go in, it might be evidence of trouble, people running the other way, it’s usually associated with the police or the military which you’re not looking to have in your life. Those realities are at once both comical and a vision into celebrity in the States, but they also finger into some serious territory when you’re talking about politics and definite survival in other countries.
Until a recent exhibition, you only used men as your portrait models. What made you change and is there a difference working with women?
There is decidedly a difference. I think it has to do with my own taste as a curator, but also with the way women and men have been placed into categories and consumed and pictured differently in the history of art. My work is ultimately a type of self-portraiture in every aspect: from the question of who gets chosen, why, and from what culture. It’s a very American project; that desire to look outside of the world, through the lens of the American perspective. It is decidedly nationalistic but it is also decidedly queer, decidedly black, inflected with a sort of Africanism as well. Portraiture can’t help but be some sort of insight into the artist.
For many years my work was about deconstructing how black men had been pictured historically in art, but also mining my own imagination and fantasy for revealing the contours of what I get turned on by in picture-making. As years passed, I started asking broader questions around the performance of masculinity, and the inverse of that is the performance of femininity, the construction of greats.
My last exhibition was entitled something similar to that, “An Economy of Greats,” in which we took young black women from the New York metropolitan area, whether it be from the streets of the Bronx, or Brooklyn, or Harlem, or Queens. I did a fashion collaboration with Givenchy and we had the incredible privilege to walk through the Louvre on a day it was closed. We got to look at the presence of women in paintings but also how they were adorned and draped. Looking at clothing as a type of fabrication of beauty but also a type of armor. Ricardo Tisci created gowns specifically for the models in this exhibition and elements of beauty were heightened, almost at freakish levels sometimes—allowing for hair to grow into over-sized quaffs, makeup to become theatrical. That exhibition allowed me to break into new territory when it came to gender and the interesting rules that surround it.
People often see your work as a commentary of race and ethnicity, taking people who would historically not have had the opportunity to be in a portrait and elevating them to high status with this grand art form. What would you like to show with these paintings?
I think it’s happening. I’ve been blessed enough to have entered both this incredibly rarefied ivory tower of Art World and also be involved with the broader culture, in pop culture. The ability to straddle the evolution of these cultures is amazing. Being able to picture that anxiety, that conflict, whether it be the history of art with the urban street or the coming to terms with the impossible masculinity and the frailty of certain decorative forms. Being able to piece together these conflicted identities is at the core of what this project is about.
You have studios all over the world. Where inspires you most?
I like New York quite a bit. It excites me and overexcites me to the point that I have to get away at times. And Beijing is a really fascinating place to be, given how many artists have created a community there. It’s a new culture that’s evolving. West Africa is a place where I am currently building a studio. In Senegal I will have my painting studio but also open the doors for three artists-in-residence each year, partnering with the Studio Museum in Harlem. This will allow residents to not only have an artist space in Harlem but also in Senegal, to be able to respond to a global Africa.
Do you have any WILD traveling experiences you could share?
Where do you start? There’s shit going down all the time; people not understanding what you’re doing, or people getting freaked out. It’s amazing the amount of miscommunication there can be, where you can often have all the best intentions but people just don’t get it. I was recently thrown in jail in the Congo for a number of days with my crew, simply because during the Congolese election we were there in small villages, paying young people to take their picture. You might imagine that having a group of well-heeled Americans with a lot of camera equipment and stacks of money hanging out during the election might look like we were up to no good, but really we were trying to craft images of Africa that gave elements of strength and dignity. So it’s that radical misinterpretation that can lead you into some pretty hairy territory.
Is there anyone in particular that you would like to paint?
If I’m doing my job correctly then I should be trying to surprise myself and constantly trying to find territory that I am not used to, to throw myself off kilter.
Since this is the Colors Issue, and your paintings are extremely colorful both visually and conceptually, can you talk a little about the vibrant backgrounds of your portraits?
The backgrounds are decidedly vulgar. They are bright and in your face and demand to be taken seriously. In the history of painting, backgrounds were the secondary objects and you would ordinarily have the powerful white male subject be erect, full frontal. The background was landscape, cattle, women, children—all things of equal processions and of similar value, meant to be used. My paintings are loud and bombastic and they refuse to go away, and I think there’s something to say about the broader theme. The color says it’s strong and unwieldy, but seen in the right light it can be beautiful, graceful.
So do you have a favorite color?
Color is something that can change your mood quite easily. Looking at the sociological studies that have been done globally, you can see we all have colors that we are drawn to. Whether it be small villages in Africa or large cities in China, everyone seems drawn to blue. People love blue, it’s demographically neutral: men, women, everyone. Whereas there are other aspects of color that remind us of warmth. There’s a reason why we recognize that McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, are all associated with fast food and consumption of protein. It’s the yellows and the reds and the oranges. There are also colors that are associated with class, things that marketers know well. Martha Stewart did quite well with the 1999 home collection using very austere sea-foam green, which made millions. A simple branding move that allowed for a type of Connecticut austere neutrality to be transcribed into a type of status, a code that people dug into to communicate their desires for wealth and status. Color can be at once trivial but also a very important part of convincing, one way or another.
What is your WILD Wish?
I don’t do well with those types of questions…