Obama, Kagame, Sall… Meet Kehinde Wiley, the artist who paints presidents

By Marième Soumaré, in Dakar
Posted on Sunday, 24 July 2022 10:48

Kehinde Wiley in front of his 2012 painting "Judith Beheading Holofernes" in his studio in Brooklyn, New York, Jan. 19, 2015. ©CHAD BATKA/The New York Times-REDUX-REA

Famous ever since he painted Barack Obama’s official portrait in 2017, meet Kehinde Wiley the American painter who splits his time between New York, Lagos and Dakar.

The crowd has taken the team by surprise. It was supposed to be an evening reserved for artists, relatives of the big boss and the capital’s cultural elite. But, word of mouth in Dakar being what it is, dozens and dozens of people are suddenly crowded in front of Black Rock’s big door. The revellers wait in the small cul-de-sac leading to the artists’ residency created by Kehinde Wiley as though they are standing at the door of a nightclub. Most of them have come straight from the Douta-Seck cultural centre, where the opening of Black Rock’s very first exhibition took place on 20 May.

Undoubtedly excited by the success of the evening, which saw nearly 1,500 visitors, Kehinde Wiley invites a few VIPs to continue the party at his place, without suspecting the number of people that this invitation will once again attract. Overwhelmed by the crowd, the American painter ends up asking the people in charge of his security to get everyone out. Only a privileged few will be able to stay and enjoy the sumptuous view from the villa, built facing the sea, where the party will go on until dawn.

Models and presidents

At 45 years old, Kehinde Wiley wants to make an impression, and he owns up to it. With his imposing stature, broad smile and shimmering outfits, he does not go unnoticed. Affable and welcoming, he spent several weeks in the Senegalese capital on the occasion of the Dakar Biennale, during which he stayed at his artists’ residency, which, since its creation in 2019, has been receiving artists from all over the world.

At the time of Black Rock’s inauguration, the hip-hop stars’ darling hit the ground running. Soul singer Alicia Keys, model Naomi Campbell and other friends made a grand entrance. Youssou N’Dour also came to greet the host. “His mark is undeniable in Dakar’s artistic landscape,” says Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop, who describes Wiley as a “big brother”. But when the two artists met in 2014, the American was not yet a global celebrity.

That didn’t happen until 2017. That was the year Wiley became the first black artist to paint the official portrait of a US president. And not just any president: Barack Obama. Wiley was ecstatic when he was contacted. “I wanted to be the one to do this portrait. I really wanted to.” To practice, he painted portraits of several African heads of state, including Macky Sall and Paul Kagame. A series he is still working on.

For his trademark anachronistic paintings, the artist draws his inspiration from classical European works. The figures proudly ride their steeds in a conquering posture, sword in hand and frilly collar at the neck. It was the presidents themselves who chose the paintings from which Wiley would work: “an interesting way of guessing their character,” he says with a smile. Entitled The Maze of Power, the forthcoming exhibition will be an “experiment in perceptions and spaces of negotiation around the concept of power”, he says.

Both the famous and the unknown

The representation of the Black man in art has been a constant preoccupation of the artist, who began his career painting unknowns, using poses selected from art history books. He is obsessed with the contrast between his subjects – Black, young, from disadvantaged communities – and the gilding that adorns Renaissance paintings. From his perambulations through the streets of Harlem to find models all the way to the Dakar Biennale, Wiley never stops questioning the image of Black bodies in art and proposing new ways of reinvesting the spaces from which they have been excluded.

After earning a degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University, the painter adopted a meticulous pictorial realism that borders on photography. His colourful paintings, often filled with floral motifs, depict vivid black faces, elevated to iconic status, famous like Obama’s or Spike Lee’s, or completely unknown – several Black Rock employees have served as models for their boss. These hyper-realistic portraits are colourful, exuberant and even ironic.

Wiley is also keen to point out that he has worked on the figuration of landscapes as painted by the old European masters, such as Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) or Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). In his exhibition “The Prelude”, presented at the end of 2021 at the National Gallery, London, we saw the evolution of his art from the portrait tradition to that of landscape painting, always questioning the dynamics of power and privilege.

“The representation of landscapes in classical European works is not insignificant: it is both the symbol and the tool of the Empire in the expression of its domination,” says the painter.

He has paved a path on which many black artists can happily walk with their heads held high

For his friend Omar Victor Diop, who shares his intention to create a vision “that leaves more room for the dignity of Black bodies”, Wiley’s work is both crucial and unique. “He goes back into history and grafts the elements of contemporary Black reality in a way that is his own. Anyone [else] who tried to do so would undoubtedly fail. He has paved a path on which many Black artists can happily walk with their heads held high. In this aspect he is important, just as much in Dakar as in New York”.

‘Black excellence’

In Senegal, the residency he founded stems from this same search for Black excellence. “The idea has always been to bring a level of competence and artistic rigour that corresponds to international standards,” Wiley explains. “I want to change the narrative of African art, so that our productions are not at odds with those of London or New York galleries”.

The concept was inspired by his own experience, when he spent several months at a New York residency nearly twenty years ago. “I wanted to recreate that bubble of intimacy and creation that I experienced at the time,” says the man who wanted to build a “luxurious sanctuary” for the selected artists. With a spa, gym, infinity pool, and individual triplexes with bay windows overlooking the ocean reserved for each artist, Black Rock is an island of splendour, cut off from the world.

Gaby-Dior Dieng, who joined the Black Rock Senegal team in 2021, confirms: “The tranquillity of the artists is very important. As soon as they walk through the door of the residency, all their worries vanish. That is the real luxury: to make sure that their art is the only thing to concentrate on”.

The founder encourages his protégés to be autonomous, but also to fructify the exchanges between themselves and with the artistic community. Charismatic, described as demanding and instructive by his teams, this man, who exudes exuberant generosity, willingly accepts the role of mentor.

Back to his roots

When he is not in New York, Kehinde Wiley divides his time between Dakar and Lagos, where he was reunited with a father who was absent during his childhood. It was during his first trip to West Africa in 1995 that the artist discovered Senegal. He was then on the road to Nigeria, in search of a father and a country he knew little about. A great return to his origins, like that of so many African-Americans before him. Since then, he has never stopped going back to both countries, in order to better escape the agitation of New York while still taking advantage of its “arty” and upscale setting.

On the African continent, the artist rests, gardens, fishes – in Dakar, he has bought a boat on which he organises excursions for his guests – and paints. In the master’s studio in the basement of the residency, a young Black man in a blue coat stares at visitors. The painting is unfinished. “This one will be exhibited in Miami,” says Georgia Harrell, managing director of Kehinde Wiley Studio. Perhaps Wiley brought it from Lagos, where he returned after his stay in Dakar, as he has become accustomed to doing, moving his paintings around as he goes.

Businessman

Behind the artist lies a businessman, who knows how to sell and sell himself. The Black Rock residency, which has the status of a nonprofit, functions solely thanks to private donations and merchandising – essentially items printed with reproductions of Wiley’s works. A tote bag costs 35,000 CFA francs (€53), and a down jacket goes for 360,000 CFA francs (€550 euros. Silk kimonos, T-shirts, beach towels… Everything can be bought online or at the Douta-Seck cultural centre.

Wiley is not afraid to mix this bling-bling, even commercial, logic with the more committed positioning of his art. A duality that may seem paradoxical, but which he defends. “Art is elitist by nature,” he says. “What is important to me is to be able to restore the dignity of models who are usually excluded from artistic spaces”.

For the moment, however, the residency has struggled to attract Senegalese artists. The majority of applications come from the United States, Europe, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. In order to open up, especially to French-speaking Africa, the team is trying to make itself better known to the local public. “We establish collaborations between artists in residence and artists living in Senegal. We are trying to broaden the access of the residency to professional training, and we are revaluing the spaces and places dedicated to art and artists, as we have done in Douta-Seck”, says Kewe Lo, the director of Black Rock Senegal.

Black Rock Nigeria

Two years after the opening of Black Rock Dakar, Wiley has begun construction on a second art centre on the continent – in Nigeria, his father’s country. While the painter lives in the affluent Victoria Island neighbourhood when he is in Lagos, his artists’ residency will be set up outside the city. A way to escape the “frenetic” atmosphere of the megalopolis. This second residency is intended to be larger and more complete than its cousin in Senegal. A space will be reserved for audiovisual production. It will probably be able to accommodate more artists than the Dakar residency, where three artists stay for one to three months per session.

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