Visual Arts 116: Kehinde Wiley Commemorates the People of Saint Louis at SLAM
Kehinde Wiley rose to stardom as the master painter behind President Barrack Obama’s portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., but here in St. Louis, he’s unveiled a new series at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM).
“There’s something kind of wonderful that these grand narrative paintings are all based on a single chance moment in the streets of St. Louis,” he said while describing a preference for capturing the everyday person over the rich and famous. The subjects behind Wiley’s paintings at SLAM all originate from a trip to North St. Louis and Ferguson in 2017, where Wiley and his team street cast models for the series.
The everyday men and women memorialized in his grand, large-scale paintings look immensely familiar. Wiley lauds the work as being a “celebration of 21st century culture.” When he spoke with the models, he requested that they wear clothing in which they felt comfortable – that reflected their own personal style. So the models wore camouflage and Nike t-shirts. They wore jean shorts and midriff tops with tattoos fully on display.
However, the poses they assume hold a different kind of familiarity. As part of this project, Wiley took inspiration from masterworks within SLAM’s collection, so these everyday people take on the roles once reserved for the wealthy and the white. The models assume “poses of colonial masters, the former bosses of the old world.” It is a potent subversion of classic western art to see the democratization of power with portraiture extend to men and women who have historically endured so much powerlessness by virtue of the color of their skin. The portraits reflect a personal narrative, both of the subjects and the artist himself.
“So much of what I do now is a type of self-portraiture,” he said. With this series, Wiley has brought a refreshing and long overdue vibrancy to portraiture within the walls of the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Kehinde Wiley grew up in South Central Los Angeles and is a graduate of both the Art Institute of San Francisco and Yale University. He currently resides in New York City.