The images of contemporary black men in the mainstream media are generally seen through a negative lens; images of thugs, drug dealers and a random rap artist about to go to jail for their thuggish ways. But, according to artist Kehinde Wiley, black men are powerful kings, princes, prophets and saints deserving of heroic, larger than life platforms — literally.
The New York-based painter has recently made a splash in the art world for his paintings of contemporary black men assuming poses from Renaissance portraits. Wiley may have found the perfect crossroad where Titian and Tiepolo meet Tupac and Biggie.
Originally from South Central Los Angeles, Wiley grew up with art. Unlike the other kids who did “normal” boy stuff like playing sports, Wiley and his mother spent their weekends going to museums, and wondered why there weren’t any paintings of black men on display. Fast forward a few years later, Wiley traveled to inner cities around the country and began to paint from photos of random black men in their regular street clothes and well-known rap stars posing majestically, incorporating backgrounds inspired by the French Rococo period.
WATCH THIS TODAY SHOW VIDEO PROFILE ON KEHINDE WILEY FROM 2006
“My basic vision,” said Wiley in a 2005 interview with NPR, “is the embracing of the black male in public space, to create paintings of young black males in ways that haven’t been seen in art historically, in this country or in the world.”
Wiley has since expanded his work internationally with a group of similar paintings of urban black and brown men in Dakar, Mumbai and Rio De Janiero, appropriately named “The World Stage.” His work came full circle with his 2006 venture into Beijing, which inspired paintings with Eastern iconography and titles from Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In spite of the shift from Eastern to Western images, his young black muses remain constant.
”[Wiley’s collection of paintings] of African-American males are emblems of progress and reclamation — not destruction,” said New York writer and artist DJ Spooky in a 2007 article in ArtAsiaPacific magazine. Now, not only can Wiley see his own work in many museums around the world, but he is also changing the way society views black men like him.