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What Inspires Kehinde Wiley's Art?

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

The Artist, Kehinde Wiley and his Art 📸 @kehindewiley

Nigerian-American artist, Kehinde Wiley is known for his naturalistic paintings of Black People, especially Black men. In 2018, Wiley was selected to paint a portrait of former President of the United States, Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

It is not surprising that Kehinde Wiley was selected to create that piece since he has in the past made several artworks featuring Black protagonists. What stands out in Wiley's paintings is his depiction of Black people. Wiley paints Black people featured in bright, and vibrant colors depicting the protagonists in a royal, heroic light.

Also worthy of note is how Kehinde Wiley infuses fashion into his paintings. In his work, "Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps' ' for instance, Wiley paints a picture of a Black male rider, wearing fashionable tan-colored boots, a bandanna, red wristbands, and a golden-colored cloak around his neck. However, you might be wondering, "What inspires Wiley's unique art form?"


From the consistent themes in his works, one can rightly deduce what inspires Kehinde's uniqueness. Here are some distinctive themes I have observed from Kehinde Wiley's artworks:


A desire to see masculinity viewed in broader ways.

Kehinde Wiley, Barack Hussein Obama (2018). Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Wiley steps away from the usual portrayal of masculinity, especially Black masculinity as macho and aggressive. He also ignores the traditional colors associated with masculinity and uses bright colors and floral designs in his paintings. In the portrait of Barack Obama, Wiley paints him in a flowery bright green background with tiny mixes of purple, pink, and yellow flowers. Wiley also paints his subjects in colorful attires and fashion accessories.

Kehinde Wiley depicts men as soft, royal, and beautiful.


A need to rewrite history

"Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps"

Kehinde Wiley's painting of historical figures but in a Black person and from a Black perspective shows his desire to retell or perhaps should I say repaint history? Wiley, for instance, recreates an image first painted by renowned artist Jacques-Louis David. His version of the painting, "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps" features a brown-skinned man.

A challenge to White supremacy

Judith beheading "Holofernes"

Wiley's art challenges white supremacy in both subtle and over-the-top ways. An example of such art is one of his paintings, Judith beheading "Holofernes" featuring a Black woman holding the severed head of a White woman by the hair. This painting also praises the natural upstanding hair of Black women as the subject had hair that stood gallantly on her head.


A need to show simplicity in the lives of Black people.

”Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro" by Kehinde Wiley

Wiley refuses to show unnecessary complications in the lives of Black people. He simply humanized them in his paintings. He has paintings of Black boys simply having fun on the streets. Nothing extra. His work, "Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro" shows a young Black boy simply looking to his side. Wiley shows that images of Black people need not be politicized all the time, even though they usually are. Some of his paintings are simply to show that Black people are being.

All artworks by @kehindewiley



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