KEHINDE WILEY AND THE MODERNIZATION OF THE PORTRAIT

Kehinde Wiley came under the spotlight when the Obamas chose him to immortalize their presidential portraits. And yet his portfolio extends far beyond his famous portraits. His cup of tea is politicized art.

In the age of the selfie, it is understandable that the portrait format has suffered a rampant devaluation. When you can take whatever photographic portraits by yourself, and apply a good number of filters to look just the way you want to look, what's the use of hiring a painter who does the same (while charging you)? No wonder that the pictorial arts have preferred to explore other paths that, a priori, might seem much more interesting and fruitful. Unless we are talking about Kehinde Wiley, of course, and how he's changing the meaning of portrait once and for all.

His style couldn't be more recognizable: his portraits are populated by black men and women depicted on colorful flowery backgrounds. Sometimes, they emulate classic portraits of men in armor riding majestic horses or depict dressed majas whose gaze is permeated with a absolutely noble bearing. Most likely you recall Wiley's work because he was the artist that the Obamas chose to immortalize the portraits that would hang on the walls of the White House, until the end of the mandate. That was the moment when absolutely everyone came to know the Kehinde universe... And most importantly, it was the moment when his speech made it to the forefront of modern art.

Because, obviously, behind his well-known portfolio there's a whole speech about the political identity of the black nation. Wiley puts the emphasis on the lack of black representation in pictorial art: there are no portraits among classic pictures that feature people of color. So his task is to amend that historical failure and while at it, demand an urgent change in iconography and black mythology: why black men are usually only represented as icons of that culture of violence and aggressiveness epitomized in the Hip-Hop culture? Why not relativize the likelihood of that portrayal (forced by the white man) by focusing on black men and women in beautiful surroundings that convey much more positive values? What Kehinde Wiley does will never be achieved by an Instagram filter: the thing about selfies is the banalization of the portrait. This is rather about the politicization of art.