The Obama portrait boosts Kehinde Wiley’s legacy celebrating the African diaspora

President Barack Obama and artist Kehinde Wiley unveil Obama’s official portrait.
President Barack Obama and artist Kehinde Wiley unveil Obama’s official portrait.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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After a year of being in the works, the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama by painter Kehinde Wiley was unveiled on Monday (Feb. 13).

Chosen by Obama himself in the closing months of his presidency, the 41-year-old New York City-based artist is known for producing vivid paintings that put black people in positions of power and strength. His large-scale figurative paintings place young people of color in old European art traditions, showing them on the back of rearing horses, wearing breeches, and in some cases, plumed hats. His portraits, with their rich and colorful backgrounds, have captured prominent African-American filmmakers, rappers, and sports stars including LL Cool J, Spike Lee, Swizz Beatz, and Carmelo Anthony.

Yet Wiley’s work is not just rooted in portraying the experience of black people in America. For more than a decade now, he has traveled across the world, establishing satellite studios, and producing work that reflects the cultural milieu of the black diaspora. In China, Brazil, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Senegal, Wiley produced majestic portraits that challenged the representation of race, deepened his connection with other Africans across the world, and elevated black bodies in the history of portraiture.

By bestowing a significant degree of dignity on black diaspora, Wiley is by extension celebrating himself. He was born in Los Angeles to a Nigerian father and an African-American mother who met while they were students at the University of California. He and his five siblings were, however, raised by his mother alone—a fact that Obama said strengthened their connection since he was also raised by his mother alone after his Kenyan father left.

While Obama joked about his big ears and gray hair in the portrait, the portrait showcased Wiley’s ability to connect global symbols and explore the diversity of black people. The greenery sprouting behind Obama’s portrait showcased African blue lilies, representing Obama’s father’s birthplace in Kenya. The jasmine stood for Hawaii, where Obama was born; while the chrysanthemum is the official flower of Chicago, from where Obama launched his political career. This triplicate experience, of being from one place, growing up in another, and living in a totally different one is something many Africans across the diaspora can relate with.

Wiley also applied the stylized type of portraiture in his series Kehinde Wiley, the World Stage: Africa, Lagos-Dakar, which he completed in 2008.

When the World Stage show was launched at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the art critic Roberta Smith said the paintings represented an important milestone for Wiley’s career. “He is beginning to paint skin in ways you can’t stop looking at,” Smith wrote in the New York Times. “And other things are falling into place too.”