Artist Dossier: Kehinde Wiley

Artist Dossier: Kehinde Wiley

Nigerian-American Kehinde Wiley is best known for portraits that feature African Americans. His work is influenced by old masters like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Peter Paul Rubens and Jacques-Louis David.

Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California in 1977 and when he was 11 years old, he took art classes at a conservatory at California State University, and at 12, enrolled in a six-week art programme sponsored by the Center for U.S./U.S.S.R. Initiatives. Wiley earned a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and a MFA from School of Art at Yale University in 2001. While in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, he discovered a discarded New York City Police Department mug shot of a Black man, and its blunt presentation inspired his early series ‘Conspicuous Fraud’ and the video Smile. He followed those with his breakthrough ‘Passing/Posing’ series (2001–04), in which he replaced heroes, prophets, and saints of old master paintings with young Black men who were dressed in trademarked hip-hop attire.

Kehinde Wiley’s art continued to develop in new directions and by 2006, he expanded into sculpture, creating busts of young men in hooded sweatshirts that were influenced by Italian models of the Baroque era. In 2012, he added women to his repertoire in the series ‘An Economy of Grace’, a commissioning of costumes from Riccardo Tisci, creative director of the French fashion house Givenchy.

The background of Wiley’s paintings added another layer of meaning to his work. They showed neither European interiors nor New York City street scenes. Instead they consisted of abstract or semi-abstract patterns drawn on anything from Irish calligraphy to repeated representation of biological sperm cells. The effect was to make the three-dimensional subjects protrude on a flat background. Usually, his assistants applied the elaborately patterned backgrounds, but Wiley always painted the figure, following the conventional hierarchy of a historic atelier.

He soon began to gain recognition beyond New York with museum exhibitions in many other cities including Belgium, Colombia and Ohio. In 2015, he collaborated with the Brooklyn Museum of Art to organise the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, which charted the course of a 14-year career. In works that questioned the cultural narrative of the Western art canon, Wiley replaced conventional images of white men of historical status with contemporary men of colour who simulated the poses of the original masterworks. He mainly reconceptualised specific paintings by these old masters with likenesses of Black men who figured prominently amid his decorative backgrounds. His impeccably refined technique and ironic yet intellectual interpretation skewed high-art traditions while giving them new significance, to earn him recognition from all over the world.

Charles I - Artist Dossier: Kehinde Wiley

Charles I, 2018, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 152.4cm. Photo credit:

Along with acclaim, came an increased appreciation for the artist’s work. On May 17, 2018, his large scale painting Charles I, 2018, oil/canvas, 182.9 x 152.4 cm, originally estimated at $100,000 – $150,000, sold for $300,000 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Sotheby’s Studio Museum in Harlem sale.

Other high selling works include; Portrait of Garrett Gray, 2017, oil/panel in artist’s frame 118.1 x 94 cm, with pre-sale estimate $40,000 – $60,000, sold for $243,750 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Phillips New Now auction on February 27, 2019; Passing/Posing Annunciation, 2005, acrylic/canvas in artist’s frame, 206.4 x 269.6 cm, with pre-sale estimate $100,000 – $150,000, which achieved $225,000 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated sale on September 25, 2018; ‘Conspicuous Fraud’ Series (Portrait Study), 2001, oil/canvas, 71.09 x 55.6 cm, with pre-sale estimate $30,000 – $50,000, sold for $212,500 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated sale on September 25, 2018; Madonna of the Rosary II, 2007, mixed media (oil and enamel)/canvas in artist’s gilded frame, 205.7 x 175.3 cm, with pre-sale estimate $40,000 – $60,000, sold for $150,000 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art sale on November 16, 2017; and Untitled (The World Stage: Brazil), 2012, oil/canvas in artist’s frame, 271.8 x 210.8 cm, with pre-sale estimate  $120,000 – $180,000, sold for $150,000 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Phillips New Now on February 27, 2019.

Portrait of Gray, 2017 - Artist Dossier: Kehinde Wiley

Portrait of Gray, 2017, oil on panel, 118.1 x 94 cm. Photo credit: mutual

In October 2017, Kehinde Wiley was commissioned to create a portrait of former United States president Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The painting was unveiled on February 12, 2018 and features Obama wearing a traditional black suit, sitting forward on a mahogany chair with a determined expression on his face. The figure is set against a riotous pattern, but, unlike Wiley’s other portraits, the motif is more subdued with leafy greens and flowers symbolising Kenya, Hawaii and Chicago. The portrait is the first representation of an African American president and the first painting by an African American in the presidential portrait collection.

Barack Obama, 2018, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute

In recognition of his work, Kehinde Wiley has received several honours including the National Medal of Arts (2014) and Artist of the Year Award from the New York City Art Teachers Association/United Federation of Teachers (2011).


Biography: Kehinde Wiley, retrieved on March 27, 2018 from

Biography: Kehinde Wiley, retrieved on March 27, 2018 from

Prices: Kehinde Wiley, retrieved on March 27, 2018 from


Oyindamola Olaniyan holds a in Botany from Lagos State University. Broadly experienced in this area, her core expertise includes social media management, content development and brand identity.

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