Seeing Double: Kehinde Wiley's Portraits

By Prater, Paige; Smith, Rachel May | Art Education, November 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Seeing Double: Kehinde Wiley's Portraits


Prater, Paige, Smith, Rachel May, Art Education


Kindergarden through 5th Grade

Kehinde Wiley's artwork is doubly relevant to art education today. His painted portraits of contemporary, young Black men challenge the White-maledominated canon of traditional Western art history and also provide opportunities to discuss skin color and gender identity. Tackling these advanced topics for a K-5 Instructional Resource (IR) through Kehinde Wiley's engaging work is significant in light of last year's shooting in Ferguson, MO, and the ongoing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equal rights movements. Young children's capability of recognizing and discussing these issues is important because studies show that those who do so have reduced levels of prejudice (Aboud & Doyle, 1996). Through this IR, K-5 students will learn about the Western portraiture tradition, consider topics of skin color and masculinity, and develop their own images challenging the art historical canon. Age-appropriate discussion questions and art-related activities will facilitate critical thinking about representations of skin color, power, and gender.

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley was born in 1977 in Los Angeles to an African American mother and Nigerian father. His mother encouraged him to pursue art as a means of keeping him off the streets. He attended San Francisco Art Institute and completed Yale University's MFA program. The absence of his father provoked his artistic exploration of what it meant to identify as a young, Black American at home and on a more global scale in countries from Brazil to Israel. Major museums such as Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Detroit Institute of Arts now collect his work.

In his large-scale painted portraits, Wiley appropriates pieces from Western art history's canon in title and position of the central figure(s). His compositions replace historical figures such as Napoleon with Black, non-professional models. Wiley usually depicts male subjects; he began to incorporate female subjects in 2012. For this IR, we focus on his male portraiture.

Wiley displays powerful visual dualities. He mixes traditional oil-painting methods with modern graphic elements. He juxtaposes strong, masculine figures against delicate floral or tapestry-influenced backgrounds. In The Art Newspaper interview with Helen Stoilas (2008), Wiley states, "all of my work has to do with the tension between masculinity and beauty..." and that "the conversation around power and painting is the central point of my work" (pp. 27-28).

By engaging with art's historical canon, Wiley's work alters perceptions of past and present, affecting collective memory. An artifact displayed in a museum or book can be ascribed importance by an individual. Simultaneously, an individual may be influenced by more widely available circulating objects utilizing that imagery. For example, a cell phone case covered with Van Gogh's Starry Night may alter the viewer's perception of the original artwork because of the lingering memory or association of the circulating object. Both interactions with the art then make the viewers part of a collective group. Similarly, as Los Angeles' Hammer Museum's curatorial fellow Naima Keith puts it, Wiley's work "has transgressed traditional training and reinvented the art world for the future" (in Keeps, 2009, p. 109). Seeing African American subjects in most museum exhibitions is rare and they are often depicted negatively. Conversely, Wiley's art glorifies figures previously lacking or misrepresented in Western painting's history. We argue that Wiley's portraits of young Black men, activating museum space typically reserved for significant (White, male) figures in Western visual history and tradition, serve to construct a new, more equitable history and collective memory.

Working over canonical Western art history as an artistic agent of cultural change, Wiley essentially inserts his own identity powerfully as a Black male. Wiley stresses, "the history of Western European painting is the history of Western European White men in positions of dominance" (in Murray, 2007, p. …

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