Artist Kehinde Wiley is known for his colorful portraits of everyday African-Americans in the style of classical European paintings. Raised in South Central Los Angeles and educated at the San Francisco Art Institute and Yale University, Wiley has lived and worked around the world.
His paintings, sculptures and stained glass windows depict people of color in a tradition that has historically rejected them or reduced them to stereotypes.
A two-year traveling exhibition of Wiley’s work, called “A New Republic,” is making its final stop at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. It opens on June 17 and closes in September. KGOU’s Nomin Ujiyediin spoke with Wiley during his first visit to Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
Ujiyediin: I met Kehinde Wiley in a gallery on the first floor of the museum, surrounded by his paintings and sculptures. Almost all of them feature black men and women on elaborate floral backgrounds, reclining or standing regally. Wiley says he wants to create portraits that depict real life, and bring together the past and the present.
Wiley: What you see in my work is a celebration, not only of young black and brown Americans, but increasingly a global conversation. Is it about America or is it about the culture that America beams out into the rest of the world? I think that's what you'll find here at the exhibition is as a stab at understanding the cultural temperature of an increasingly vibrant global youth culture that's shot through the rubric of American hip hop.
Ujiyediin: You've said that your work now is a form of self-portraiture in a way. So what pieces of yourself do you put into your work?
Wiley: Well, so much of the work that you'll see here has a sensibility, a style, a type of brash American bravado. But if you look a little closer at a lot of these paintings, you'll see little sperm cells that are silver, gilded, little nods towards human sexuality, my own sense of desire and these paintings. It's the only time that you'll see me in these images.
Ujiyediin: Who do you make your art for?
Wiley: Well, there's several audiences when you're thinking about art. You have to think about the ivory-tower-educated white elite who basically run the art business internationally. But you also have to think about what turns you on as a creator and what you want to spend the rest of your life on this on this earth doing. A much more sort of fluid and a dynamic urban sensibility is something that informs my work tremendously. So there is no singular audience, it kind of bounces around.
Ujiyediin: What does it feel like to combine those worlds?
Wiley: I think that many people of color understand what it's like to have your own unique culture but also have to interface the culture of a dominant group. It's called code switching and it's something that we do without thinking. In this show what you'll see is a great amount of code switching in terms of what the expectations are, even for an artist like myself, for my career, for my gender and for my race.
Much of the way that we look at black men specifically in America has to do with a very fixed notion of hypersexuality, propensities towards sports and anti-social behaviors. And I think that there's a there's a there's a dissonance between the received culture and the body that I happen to inhabit. And there's a strange bifurcation that happens in the minds of many people of color and it's not just an American question but one that has to do with the interface between your reality and the one that's being presented to the world as true when you know it's not true. The opportunity for an artist has to do with being able to communicate human subtlety, to be able to communicate a level of complexity of identity that exists outside of these sort of binaries that we’re oftentimes presented with.
Ujiyediin: How would you like to see the American art world change in terms of whose bodies are depicted and also who gets to depict those bodies?
Wiley: I'd like to be able to see a lot more permission given to everyone involved. I'd like to be able to see a lot less self-consciousness when it comes to the polite depiction of what's acceptable to a politically correct set of assumptions. Our culture needs to get a little bit more intellectually perverse and challenge its notions of what the acceptable is.
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