#OBFocus: Kehinde Wiley – Nigerian-American Artist Who Produced Obama’s Portrait


Kehinde Wiley is a New York City-based portrait painter who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of African-Americans.

Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California. His father is Yoruba from Nigeria, and his mother is African-American. He and his five siblings were raised in South Central Los Angeles by his mother alone, who relied on welfare benefits and earnings from the family thrift shop. He travelled to Nigeria at 20 to explore his roots and met his father.

As a child, his interest in art was clear and he was enrolled by his mother in after-school art classes. At the age of 12, he spent a short time at an art school in Russia. He later earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University, School of Art in 2001.

His portraits are based on photographs of young men whom he sees on the street. He has painted men from Harlem’s 125th Street, as well as the South-Central Los Angeles neighbourhood where he was born.

Wiley’s “masterpiece” – Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005) – is based on Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David and has been restaged by Wiley with an African rider wearing modern army fatigues and a bandanna.

In October 2017 it was announced that Wiley had been commissioned to produce a portrait of former U.S. president Barack Obama by Mr. Obama himself, in the closing months of his presidency, for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.




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