Kehinde Wiley has vivid memories of the first time he felt at home in the world of fine art. Growing up in 1980’s South Central Los Angeles, he’d occasionally go with his mother to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was there that he first saw one of Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of everyday African-American life.
He remembers being “completely blown away” by seeing black subjects painted by a black artist on a large canvas. It gave him “the sense that anything is possible.”
Wiley aims with his latest show to create the same sort of experience for St. Louisans.
Long established as an internationally renowned artist, Wiley is now best known for his official portrait of Barack Obama. His show on view at St. Louis Art Museum is composed of portraits of locals, rendered in the same bold style with which he painted the former president.
Wiley, 41, exclusively paints portraits of black people. He depicts his models against dramatically colorful backgrounds, often striking poses recalling Old Master portraits of aristocrats.
A portrait of Michael Brown's community
He recruited subjects for his latest show on the streets of St. Louis and Ferguson, at locations like the convenience store where Michael Brown went the day a Ferguson police officer shot and killed him in 2014.
“His community is the subject of this work,” Wiley said, during an interview at the museum. “What I wanted to do was to place young black and brown bodies in a beautiful light, a resplendent, almost religious light.”
In a new twist for the artist, the paintings make visual references to works of art in the museum’s collection. He said the juxtaposition underlines his thematic concern with carving out room — both artistically and physically — for people who have been historically underrepresented in the art world.
“It’s important to be able to claim the museum space to be able to allow the black community of St. Louis and Ferguson to feel welcomed here,” he said. “There’s something really wonderful about being able to walk into a hallowed institution like this and see people who look like you.
“It makes you feel immediately at home, and as if this conversation included you. As if the full arc of history were something that you are heir to."
Echoes from the past, thoughts for the future
In one portrait, Shontay Haynes, 28, of Wellston, strikes a pose from Francesco Salviati’s 16th century painting “Portrait of a Florentine Nobleman.”
When she saw her portrait for the first time, she was overwhelmed.
“It’s amazing, it’s so beautiful,” she said, gazing up at the large canvas. “I’m gonna cry but I’m tryin’ to hold it in. I see myself. I’m beautiful.”
Her sister, Ashley Cooper, posed for Wiley as well. Her portrait alludes to “Charles I,” a painting by the Dutch artist Daniel Martensz Mystens the Elder.
Cooper, 31, also of Wellston, was at the Little Caesars just north of Delmar Boulevard when Wiley found her and asked to photograph her. It took some convincing by the artist and his assistants before she was satisfied that she wasn’t being pranked. Seeing the results about a year later, she was pleased.
“I just look so powerful,” Cooper said, her eyes squarely on the painting. “Such a queen.”
Wiley’s portrait of Brincel Kape'li Wiggins, Jr. takes cues from Dutch painter Gerard ter Borch’s portrait of Jacob de Graeff, wearing a dark military uniform. In his portrait, Wiggins wears an open sportcoat and a black baseball cap emblazoned with the word “Ferguson.”
“That’s my everyday aura,” Wiggins said, gesturing up at the painting. “I was just representing the neighborhood.
He thinks the paintings make a positive impression about his town.
“The community been through a lot and the light that they’re shining on us in Ferguson, all the negativity,” Wiggins said. “It kinda just shows some positivity in everything. The rain don’t last forever.”
If you go
What: Kehinde Wiley: St. Louis
Where: St. Louis Art Museum
When: Through Feb. 10
How much: Free
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