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Kehinde Wiley: “My Figures Demand to Be Taken Seriously”

by Alayo Akinkugbe

The New York-based artist – who mixes Japanese Edo period landscaping with western easel painting traditions to dazzling effect – discusses his new exhibition in LA, and configuring Black bodies within “non-western models of freedom of space.”

Kehinde Wiley is the widely acclaimed LA-born, New York-based artist known for his large-scale, maximalist portraits of contemporary Black figures. Often, the people in Wiley’s paintings are passersby scouted in the streets of cities around the world like Mumbai, Dakar and Rio de Janeiro. His figures, usually backdropped by vividly coloured floral patterns or landscapes, are portrayed with the precision of his signature, hyper-realistic style of oil painting. They mimic the poses found in historical portraits of nobility and royals, because, in Wiley’s own words, his figures are “demanding to be taken seriously, and demanding not to disappear”.

In his new exhibition Colourful Realm at Roberts Projects in LA, Wiley takes a more minimal approach to painting. Much of his inspiration for this series comes from Japanese landscape paintings of the Edo period; while growing up in California, Wiley’s mother would regale him with stories of living in Japan as a marine, and she would often prepare Japanese meals at home. As a result, Japanese culture has always had a strong influence on his artwork.

Using his deep knowledge of painterly traditions in both Japanese and western art, here, Wiley has produced a body of work that feels fresh and liberating. In these portraits, he is “imagining a new type of freedom” for the Black body. Below, he talks AnOther through the new show.