Obama, Kagame, Sall… Meet Kehinde Wiley, the artist who paints presidents

The crowd took the team by surprise. It was supposed to be an evening reserved for artists, those close to the big boss and the cultural elite of the capital. But, word of mouth in Dakar being what it is, dozens and dozens of people are suddenly crowding in front of the front door of Black Rock. Party-goers wait in the small alleyway leading to the artists‘ residence created by Kehinde Wiley as if they were standing at the door of a nightclub. Most of them come straight from the Douta-Seck cultural center, where the opening of the very first Black Rock exhibition took place on May 20.

Undoubtedly enthusiastic by the success of the evening which brought together nearly 1,500 visitors, Kehinde Wiley invited a few VIPs to continue the party at his home, unaware of the number of people that this invitation would once again attract. Overwhelmed by the crowd, the American painter ended up asking the people in charge of his security to get everyone out. Only a privileged few will be able to stay and enjoy the sumptuous view from the villa, built facing the sea, where the party will continue until dawn.

Models and Presidents

At 45, Kehinde Wiley wants to make an impression, and he admits it. With his imposing stature, his broad smile and his shimmering outfits, he does not go unnoticed. Affable and welcoming, he spent several weeks in the Senegalese capital on the occasion of the Dakar Biennale, during which he stayed in his artists’ residence which, since its creation in 2019, has received artists from all over the world.

At the time of the inauguration of Black Rock, the darling of the stars of hip-hop hit the bull’s eye. Soul singer Alicia Keys, model Naomi Campbell and other friends made a grand entrance. Youssou N’Dour also came to greet the host. “His mark is undeniable in the artistic landscape of Dakar”, says Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop, who describes Wiley as a “big brother”. But when the two artists met in 2014, the American was not yet a world celebrity.

That didn’t happen until 2017. That was the year Wiley became the first black artist to paint the official portrait of a US president. And not just any president: Barack Obama. Wiley was thrilled when contacted. “I wanted to be the one to do this portrait. I really wanted it. To practice, he painted the portraits of several African heads of state, including Macky Sall and Paul Kagame. A series he is still working on.

For his iconic anachronistic paintings, the artist draws inspiration from classic European works. The characters proudly ride their steeds in a conquering posture, sword in hand and frilly collar around their necks. It was the presidents themselves who chose the paintings from which Wiley will work: “an interesting way to guess their character,” he says with a smile. Entitled The Labyrinth of Powerthe upcoming exhibition will be an “experimentation of perceptions and spaces for negotiation around the concept of power,” he says.

The famous and the unknown

The representation of the black man in art has been a constant preoccupation of the artist, who began his career by painting unknown people, using poses chosen from art history books. He is obsessed with the contrast between his subjects – blacks, young people, from underprivileged backgrounds – and the gilding that adorns Renaissance paintings. From his wanderings in the streets of Harlem in search of models to the Dakar Biennale, Wiley has never ceased to question the image of black bodies in art and to propose new ways of reinvesting spaces. from which they were excluded.

After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute and a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University, the painter adopted a meticulous pictorial realism that bordered on photography. His colorful paintings, often filled with floral motifs, depict vivid black faces, elevated to iconic status, famous like those of Obama or Spike Lee, or completely unknown – several Black Rock employees served as models for their boss. These hyper-realistic portraits are colourful, exuberant and even ironic.

Wiley is also keen to point out that he worked on the figuration of landscapes as painted by the old European masters, such as Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) or Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). In his exhibition “The Prelude”, presented at the end of 2021 at the National Gallery in London, we saw the evolution of his art from the tradition of portraiture to that of landscape painting, always questioning the dynamics of power and privilege.

“The representation of landscapes in classical European works is not insignificant: it is both the symbol and the tool of the Empire in the expression of its domination”, specifies the painter.

He has paved a way that many black artists can walk happily with their heads held high.

For his friend Omar Victor Diop, who shares his intention to create a vision “that leaves more room for the dignity of black bodies”, Wiley’s work is both crucial and unique. “He goes back in history and grafts elements of contemporary black reality in his own unique way. Someone [else] who tried to do so would undoubtedly fail. He has opened a path that many black artists can happily walk with their heads held high. In this respect, it is important, both in Dakar and in New York”.

“Black Excellence”

In Senegal, the residence he founded stems from this same search for black excellence. “The idea has always been to bring a level of skill and artistic rigor that corresponds to international standards,” explains Wiley. “I want to change the narrative of African art, so that our productions are not at odds with those of galleries in London or New York”.

The concept was inspired by his own experience, when he spent several months in a residence in New York almost twenty years ago. “I wanted to recreate this bubble of intimacy and creation that I experienced at the time”, says the one who wanted to build a “luxurious sanctuary” for the selected artists. With a spa, gym, infinity pool and individual triplexes with floor-to-ceiling ocean windows reserved for each artist, Black Rock is an island of splendour, cut off from the world.

Gaby-Dior Dieng, who joined the Black Rock Senegal team in 2021, confirms: “The tranquility of artists is very important. As soon as they cross the door of the residence, all their worries vanish. That’s the real luxury: making sure their art is the only thing to focus on.”

The founder encourages his proteges to be independent, but also to foster exchanges between them and with the artistic community. Charismatic, described as demanding and instructive by his teams, this man of exuberant generosity willingly accepts the role of mentor.

Back to its roots

When he’s not in New York, Kehinde Wiley divides his time between Dakar and Lagos, where he reunited with an absent father during his childhood. It was during his first trip to West Africa in 1995 that the artist discovered Senegal. He was then on the road to Nigeria, looking for a father and a country he knew little about. A great homecoming, like that of so many African-Americans before him. Since then, he has not stopped returning to both countries, the better to escape the hustle and bustle of New York while taking advantage of its “arty” and posh setting.

On the African continent, the artist rests, gardens, fishes – in Dakar, he bought a boat on which he organizes excursions for his guests – and paints. In the master’s studio in the basement of the residence, a young black man in a blue coat stares at the visitors. The painting is unfinished. “This one will be exhibited in Miami,” says Georgia Harrell, Managing Director of Kehinde Wiley Studio. Perhaps Wiley brought it from Lagos, where he returned after his time in Dakar, as he used to do, moving his paintings as he went.

Businessman

Behind the artist hides a businessman, who knows how to sell and sell himself. The Black Rock Residence, which has non-profit status, operates solely through private donations and merchandising – essentially items printed with reproductions of Wiley’s artwork. A tote bag costs 35,000 F CFA (53 €), and a down jacket 360,000 F CFA (550 €). Silk kimonos, T-shirts, beach towels… Everything can be bought online or at the Douta-Seck cultural center.

Wiley is not afraid to mix this bling-bling, even commercial logic, with the more committed positioning of his art. A duality which may seem paradoxical, but which he defends. “Art is elitist by nature,” he says. “What matters to me is being able to restore their dignity to models usually excluded from artistic spaces”.

For now, however, the residency is struggling to attract Senegalese artists. The majority of applications come from the United States, Europe, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. In order to open up, in particular to French-speaking Africa, the team is trying to make itself better known to the local public. “We establish collaborations between artists in residence and artists living in Senegal. We are trying to widen the residence’s access to professional training, and we are upgrading the spaces and places dedicated to art and artists, as we did in Douta-Seck”, explains Kewe Lo, the director of Black Rock Senegal.

black rock nigeria

Two years after opening Black Rock Dakar, Wiley launched the construction of a second arts center on the continent – ​​in Nigeria, his father’s country. While the painter lives in the affluent area of ​​Victoria Island when he is in Lagos, his artists’ residence will be set up outside the city. A way of escaping the “frenetic” atmosphere of megalopolises. This second residence is larger and more complete than its cousin in Senegal. A space will be reserved for audiovisual production. It will probably be able to accommodate more artists than the Dakar residence, where three artists stay for one to three months per session.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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