Art History Lab

Kehinde Wiley: A Journey from South-central L.A. to Artistic Stardom

Kehinde Wiley’s Biography: From South-central Los Angeles to Internationally Renowned Artist

Kehinde Wiley is a contemporary artist who hails from South-central Los Angeles. Growing up, Wiley attended art classes with his mother and learned the Russian language from his father, who was a linguistics professor.

He later went on to study art at San Francisco Art Institute and Yale School of Art, where he earned his BFA and MFA, respectively. Wiley’s art expresses his individuality and is a blend of his personal experiences and his admiration for classical European art.

Early Life and Education

Kehinde Wiley’s early life was shaped by the vibrant community of South-central Los Angeles, where he grew up. However, the neighborhood was plagued by crime, and Wiley’s mother often had to teach him how to behave around the police to avoid any trouble.

Despite these challenges, Wiley’s passion for art was fuelled by his mother, who enrolled him in art classes at an early age.

As Wiley progressed in his art classes, he saw a painting by John Constable that captured his imagination.

The painting was part of a romantic series, depicting idyllic country life that offered an escape from the realities of life in South-central Los Angeles. While attending classes, Wiley was also introduced to the work of Thomas Gainsborough, whose romantic paintings encouraged him to explore classical European art.

Influence of Los Angeles and Museum Visits

Wiley’s early experiences growing up in South-central Los Angeles heavily influenced his art. The neighborhood violence inspired Wiley to create art that countered the negative stereotypes surrounding black individuals in America.

Wiley’s philosophy on his art was to celebrate black people by depicting them in grandiose classical poses, which he felt were more dignified.

Wiley’s love of classical European art prompted him to visit museums, where he gained inspiration for his work.

At the museums, Wiley had the opportunity to study the artwork of Johannes Vermeer, Edouard Manet, and other important European painters. This appreciation for classical European art would become the foundation of Wiley’s unique style.

Mature Education and Early Career

After completing his BFA and MFA at San Francisco Art Institute and Yale School of Art, respectively, Wiley discovered an old mugshot in a pawn shop. After studying the photo, Wiley was struck by the individual’s powerful presence, which prompted him to use the image as inspiration for his work.

Within a year of discovering the mugshot, Wiley had his first solo show. Wiley’s work began to gain attention and commendation soon after he had his first solo show.

Jefferey Deitch, a prominent art dealer, discovered Wiley’s work and offered him an artist residency. The residency allowed Wiley to create artwork using a larger studio, which allowed him to experiment and introduce new techniques to his work.


In conclusion, Kehinde Wiley is a distinctive artist who’s had a meteoric rise within the art world. Through his singular style, Wiley has become known for his depictions of classical European artwork infused with black culture.

His love of classical European paintings and his experiences growing up in South-central Los Angeles have been instrumental in informing his artistic practice. With his work continuing to gain widespread recognition, there’s no denying that Kehinde Wiley’s art will continue to inspire artists and captivate audiences worldwide.

Kehinde Wiley’s Biography: From South-central Los Angeles to Internationally Renowned Artist (Continued)

Mature Career and Recognition

Kehinde Wiley’s talent as an artist soon garnered significant recognition, leading to a mature career that saw him continue to push boundaries and grow as an artist. He traveled to West Africa to reconnect with his estranged father, which opened up new opportunities for exploration in his art.

He began painting models from different cities that showed a more diverse range of subjects.

Travels to West Africa and Expansion of Models

Wiley’s travels to West Africa in 2001 marked a turning point in his career. There, he underwent a spiritual change and felt inspired to explore new themes in his work.

He also became interested in the African origins of portraiture, which was evident in his art. During this time, he began to use nontraditional models, from places like Jamaica and Senegal, in his paintings.

Wiley’s early portraits mainly featured young black men, but in recent years he has started exploring black women’s contributions to art and culture. With his West African travels, Wiley had reconnected with his heritage, and this is reflected in some of his later works.

He was finally able to view people of color in a different light and gained a new appreciation for how people can mix cultures in a way that brings out the best of both worlds.

Achievements and Ventures in Different Mediums

In 2006, VH1 commissioned Kehinde Wiley to create a series of paintings of famous singers and rappers for their annual Hip Hop Honors ceremony. The paintings were part of a tribute that was meant to showcase how hip-hop music had affected American culture.

In 2015, Wiley was named Artist of the Year by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This was a significant achievement since the museum represents the cultural contributions of black Americans.

Wiley has also ventured into other mediums, such as sculpture and film. His 2014 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum featured some of his sculpture work, including a bronze bust that depicted himself growing out of a decapitated head.

The exhibition also included a series of short films that Wiley directed, which were screened on a loop throughout the exhibition’s run.

Important Kehinde Wiley Art

Kehinde Wiley’s art is notable for its incorporation of black subjects into classical European poses. His unique interpretation of classical paintings often features hyper-masculine figures, typically young black men dressed in contemporary clothing, or with traditional African garb that draws on both European and African aesthetics.

“Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps”

One of Wiley’s most famous pieces is a twist on Jacques-Louis David’s painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” In Wiley’s version, “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” a young black man, dressed in streetwear, takes the place of Napoleon, strutting through an urban landscape with the same hyper-heroic air. This painting reflects the tension in black masculinity and raises questions about what it means to view black masculinity as forceful and heroic.

“Portrait of Wangechi Mutu, Mamiwata”

Wiley’s “Portrait of Wangechi Mutu, Mamiwata,” is part of his Trickster series, a collection that subverts traditional European mythology and African folklore. Wiley painted Mutu, a Kenyan artist, in profile, and he placed the mythical python goddess, Mamiwata, behind her in a dreamlike haze.

This painting represents a woman’s ability to transform and subvert the norms of what it means to be a proper woman. “President Barack Obama”

When Wiley was commissioned to paint a portrait of President Barack Obama, he took an unfamiliar route.

Wiley’s painting featured Obama sitting on a chair surrounded by green leaves and flowers, giving the impression that he was sitting outdoors. Behind him, seemingly flowing lines and abstract patterns depicted his life’s journey.

Wiley’s painting was an original representation of the President, breaking away from the formal and traditional portrait setting. “Dimietrus Study”

Wiley’s “Dimietrus Study” is a limited edition print, exploring the themes of masculinity and femininity through color and gesture.

In this work, Wiley intentionally contrasts feminine and masculine poses within the same portrait. The painting shows two different depictions of the same person, one showing a soft, feminine pose, and the other showing a more forceful, masculine pose.


Kehinde Wiley is a contemporary artist who has managed to merge classical European art with his black culture. His unique interpretation of classical paintings, his exploration of African history and culture, and his use of nontraditional models sets him apart from other artists of his generation.

With each painting, he brings out the beauty in the subjects he focuses on, representing them in grandiose classical poses, creating compelling images that challenge stereotypes in the art world. Kehinde Wiley’s Biography: From South-central Los Angeles to Internationally Renowned Artist (Continued)

Reading Recommendations

For those interested in Kehinde Wiley’s artistic career, several books and essays can provide a comprehensive understanding of the artist’s background and inspirations. “Black Light” by Kehinde Wiley, Brian Keith Jackson, and Krista A.


“Black Light” provides an intimate look into Kehinde Wiley’s artistic career. The book features over sixty of Wiley’s most recognizable works, showcasing his use of bright colors as well as his subversion of portrait painting as a medium.

Through the voice of his co-author, Brian Keith Jackson, Wiley offers insight into his journey as a black man navigating through the world of art. Krista A.

Thompson provides an illuminating essay discussing the evolution of Wiley’s work over time, making “Black Light” an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the artist’s evolution. “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” by Connie H.

Choi, edited by Eugenie Tsai

“Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work. The book includes over fifty paintings as well as works on paper, sculptures, and stained glass windows.

The book also features influential essays by various authors, such as Thelma Golden and Sarah Lewis, offering a broad scope of collaborators in both art and academia. The accompanying essays frame Wiley’s work within contemporary issues of race, identity, and sexuality, making it a multi-dimensional portrait of the artist’s life and art.

“The Obama Portraits” by Tana Caragol, Dorothy Moss, Richard Powell, and Kim Sajet

For those interested in the iconic Obama portraits, “The Obama Portraits” offers essential insights into the making of these historically significant pieces of art. The book covers everything from the portraits’ conception to the public response after their unveiling.

Through the voice of several art historians, the book provides a discussion of the significance of black artists and the historical significance of the inclusion of two black artists at White House commissioning. The authors also delve into the portraitures’ unique representation of the Obamas, from the sitter’s poses to the symbolic imagery in the background.


Kehinde Wiley’s art has proven highly influential and has opened up great prospects for better representation of black people in the art world. A significant number of works by Wiley have been exhibited worldwide, and his art has been highly sought after by collectors.

Exploring Wiley’s background through the recommended books allows readers to gain a deeper understanding of the artist’s practice, the themes that motivate him, and his significant contribution to the art world. In conclusion, Kehinde Wiley’s journey from South-central Los Angeles to becoming an internationally renowned artist is a testament to the power of art in challenging societal norms and perceptions.

Through his unique blend of classical European techniques and representation of black culture and identity, Wiley has established himself as a visionary artist. His exploration of diverse models, his ventures into different mediums, and his thought-provoking artworks have not only earned him recognition but have also sparked important conversations about race, identity, and representation.

By delving into Wiley’s biography, important artworks, and recommended readings, readers can gain a deeper appreciation for the transformative impact of art and its ability to redefine narratives and foster inclusivity in the art world and beyond. Ultimately, Kehinde Wiley’s inspiring journey serves as a reminder that art has the power to challenge, uplift, and create meaningful connections across cultures and generations.

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