This Summer Session we’re thinking about celebrity, and today we bring you an interview from the podcast Bad at Sports with artist Kehinde Wiley, courtesy of our sister publication Art Practical. Wiley, a highly celebrated artist himself, is best known for his large Orientalist paintings of men of color, utilizing the immaterial visual vernacular of authority and the materiality and scale of wealth to reframe his anonymous, systemically disenfranchised subjects in positions of power. This interview was originally published on January 15, 2013.
In September 2010, Bad at Sports founders Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie, along with Dr. Amy Mooney, associate professor at Columbia College, sat down with artist Kehinde Wiley at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, in Chicago, during the installation of his exhibition The World Stage: India-Sri Lanka. The interview was presented as Episode 263 on the podcast. We bring you an abridged version of that conversation in anticipation of Wiley’s upcoming exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), The World Stage: Israel. The eighteen paintings included in the CJM exhibition and represented here are, like the series presented at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, portraits of young men that Wiley has encountered on the streets of cities around the globe who are influenced by and style themselves in the fashion of urban African American youth culture. Regardless of their diverse ethnicities, Wiley renders these men in poses that adopt the conventions of European aristocratic portraiture. The World Stage: Israel will be on view from February 14 through May 27, 2013.
Richard Holland: In your earlier work, you have these patterns that define the space and then work themselves onto the figure. But now the work is back into that more illusionary mode, in which you are obviously quoting a lot of Orientalist work. But you’ve put these figures back in control of spaces and things.
Kehinde Wiley: So much of my work is defined by the difference between the figure in the foreground and the background. Very early in my career, I asked myself, “What is that difference?” I started looking at the way that a figure in the foreground works in 18th- and 19th-century European paintings and saw how much has to do with what the figure owns or possesses. I wanted to break away from that sense in which there’s the house, the wife, and the cattle, all depicted in equal measure behind the sitter. In my work, I want to create an understanding, not about what a painting looks like but about what a painting says. In many of those earlier works, the paintings speak about landed gentry who possess not only women’s bodies but the bodies of indentured servants and the bodies of, well, we could almost consider the land a body. What happens when we empty that out and create this swatch through which we push through the decorative?
I started working with street casting in the streets of Black America and then moved on to the streets of Africa, from Nigeria to Senegal. I went on to Rio and São Paulo, to Afghanistan and Israel. I find models who are completely unknown to me. I find people who take the train and get to work every day or people who go to the store to buy milk. I stop them and say, “Look, I think there’s a characteristic in you, and I can’t really describe what that is, but I need you to trust what this is. Look through the historical sources that I found. Which one do you like? Who do you want to become in this picture?” That is revealing.