Bad at Sports

Interview with Kehinde Wiley

By Bad at Sports January 15, 2013

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

Kehinde Wiley. David Ayelin (The World Stage: Israel), 2011 (detail); oil on canvas, 56.88 x 41.5 in. (framed). Defares Collection, Amsterdam. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA.

In September 2010, Bad at Sports founders Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie, along with Dr. Amy Mooney, associate professor at Columbia College, sat down with artist Kehinde Wiley at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, in Chicago, during the installation of his exhibition The World Stage: India-Sri Lanka. The interview was presented as Episode 263 on the podcast. We bring you an abridged version of that conversation in anticipation of Wiley’s upcoming exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), The World Stage: Israel. The eighteen paintings included in the CJM exhibition and represented here, are, like the series presented at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, portraits of young men that Wiley has encountered on the streets of cities around the globe who are influenced by and style themselves in the fashion of urban African American youth culture. Regardless of their diverse ethnicities, Wiley renders these men in poses that adopt the conventions of European aristocratic portraiture. The World Stage: Israel will be on view from February 14 through May 27, 2013.

Richard Holland: In your earlier work, you have these patterns that define the space and then work themselves onto the figure. But now the work is back into that more illusionary mode, in which you are obviously quoting a lot of Orientalist work. But you’ve put these figures back in control of spaces and things

Kehinde Wiley: So much of my work is defined by the difference between the figure in the foreground and the background. Very early in my career, I asked myself, “What is that difference?” I started looking at the way that a figure in the foreground works in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European paintings and saw how much has to do with what the figure owns or possesses. I wanted to break away from that sense in which there’s the house, the wife, and the cattle, all depicted in equal measure behind the sitter. In my work, I want to create an understanding, not about what a painting looks like but about what a painting says. In many of those earlier works, the paintings speak about landed gentry who possess not only women’s bodies but the bodies of indentured servants and the bodies of, well, we could almost consider the land a body. What happens when we empty that out and create this swatch through which we push through the decorative?

I started working with street casting in the streets of black America and then moved on to the streets of Africa, from Nigeria to Senegal. I went on to Rio and São Paulo, to Afghanistan and Israel. I find models who are completely unknown to me. I find people who take the train and get to work every day or people who go to the store to buy milk. I stop them and say, “Look, I think there’s a characteristic in you, and I can’t really describe what that is, but I need you to trust what this is. Look through the historical sources that I found. Which one do you like? Who do you want to become in this picture?” That is revealing.

RH: It reveals the sitter’s desire. In one way, you are being true to portraiture, to what we expect the artist to do, by rendering a likeness. It fulfills my desire to look the way I want to look, however that might be. But you’re exploring this new territory, because you’re rendering people who were not the subjects of this very grand tradition. You’re making them the primary subjects. You’re rendering people as monumental who are anonymous.


Kehinde Wiley, Alios Itzhak (The World Stage: Israel), 2011; oil and gold enamel on canvas, 115.5 x 80.13 in. (framed). Collection The Jewish Museum, New York. Purchase: Gift of Lisa and Steven Tananbaum Family Foundation; gift in honor of Joan Rosenbaum by the Contemporary Judaica, Fine Arts, Photography, and Traditional Judaica Acquisitions Committee Funds, 2011-31.

KW: There is something to be said about laying bare the vocabulary of the aristocratic measure, right? There’s something to be said about allowing the powerless to tell their own story.

RH: But how do I know these people? I’m not going to recognize them based on their individual names. I’m not going to know them other than seeing them completely out of context.

Amy Mooney: You may not know them specifically, but you live in Chicago, which is very diverse socially and economically. You certainly see people whose lifestyle and family [resemble these portraits].

KW: I enjoy Chicago as one of the great American cities. When I come here and take a taxi from the airport, I meet a young man from Somalia. I meet a young man from Eritrea who engages with this nation with a sense of hope and a sense of desire. But we also we know that there are other elements of this nation that are toxic. I look at myself as an artist desiring to depict young people—I use a very specific demographic between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, that sweet spot for the producers of American television—and ask myself, “What does that look like, not only to us, but how do they refract [those elements] back to themselves?” It’s very easy to look at these painting in one light. But I beg you to look at these paintings in the light that allows for them to have agency and for all of that beautiful and terrible history to be present.

Duncan MacKenzie: In this show, we’re not seeing the collapse of the figure-ground relationship quite like we usually do. In prior shows, we saw work that included these big baroque patterns and heroic gentlemen who then get subsumed little by little by that background. That collapse has always intrigued me. Here, these figures really step forward from their grounds and feel like they’re in a context that is not part of them.

KW: I love the way that structure can be built and then torn down intentionally or by natural forces. The collapse happens to be between the figure and the ground, but it’s also between the artist and his own relationship to his work. The collapse is intentional, but it is also something that happens as a way of voyaging through a conversation around the aesthetic possibilities of picturing people from other places. When we talk about Orientalist painting, we’re talking about painting generally from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, and some would say even into the twentieth, that allows Europe to look at Africa, Asia Minor, or East Asia in a way that’s revelatory but also as a place in which you can empty yourself out. A place in which there is no place. It’s an emptiness and a location at once. It’s the absolute wallpaper. What does it look like when people choose to position their bodies in a certain way in absolute wallpaper? That’s the way that I see it, as the creator of the work. I do think that there should be manifold registrations of the work.


Kehinde Wiley. David Ayelin (The World Stage: Israel), 2011; oil on canvas, 56.88 x 41.5 in. (framed). Defares Collection, Amsterdam. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA.

RH: So we’re really looking at these backgrounds as backdrops. In one way, they reference the individuals or the nationalities that they represent, but are you also saying that the backgrounds are flattened by their history and no longer exert the power that they once held?

KW: Status and class and social anxiety and perhaps social code are all released when you look at paintings of powerful individuals from the past. However, there’s something to be mined and gained by looking at them in a new way. What happens when you see black bodies that have not previously been celebrated on the walls of the most important institutions in the world? What happens when you see them dance across the screen of a canvas? They start to read differently. It becomes a question of “How do we code the body?” Not only in current time, but how does that current time reflect everything that we know historically, art historically and socio-historically? What is it the collapse of?

RH: One of the expectations of a painting is a certain kind of immortality. This goes beyond nowness, and I think it’s very important that it does. But yet there is a very performative, cinematic quality to your paintings. I’m looking at this one over here, which reads like a young man seated in a Saint Jerome scene. And it seems that there’s going to be some kind of narrative, but does he really belong in this space? He’s contemporary, yet this scene seems really old; there’s definitely that tension in the work. How are we going to know him, meaning, how are we going to think about him as a social type, as someone from a particular era?

KW: Let’s turn that on its end. Let’s imagine that we don’t want to know him. Let’s imagine that the question that you asked has to do with solving a question. There’s a riddle that needs to be answered.

RH: An expectation, for sure.

KW: There’s a certain set of expectations, always. This goes to the crux of literary criticism and art theoretical conversations for all eternity. But I think that we provide questions, not answers. We provide provocations rather than fully formed objects. These aren’t things that are pat and fixed. These are things that become a life lived. I’ve decided that I like the fact that my vocation is portable. I like the fact that I can go to a small island off the coast of Senegal and make paintings. Now one of the questions that is very important has to do with the fact that I have that life. These paintings are high-priced, luxury goods for wealthy consumers. I’m opening up studios in different cities, and the price of this painting would save their entire village, much less their individual lives. How do we interface the object with the fact of its material truth? How do we interface the market economy with the fact that these objects are rude in their very existence? We don’t. I create something that means something to me, to the world, and try to do my best. I can’t fix everything.

RH: Do you want to address some of those social issues that seem implicitly part of this dialogue? Do you look to that kind of moment of activism, if we wanted to call it that?

KW: What’s interesting about young black American artists within the twentieth century, and increasingly within the twenty-first as well, is that there’s this expectation of a political corrective that demands that the artist fixes the ills of the world.

In 1994, [the curator] Thelma Golden curated the exhibition The Black Male, which posed the question, “What is the black male?” I think she—in a visceral, social, personal way—knew exactly what the black male personage was but [gave artists the opportunity] to throw it into full relief. In addition, in 2001, Golden created the exhibition Freestyle, in which she called into question a lot of those identity issues that were requisite for ethnic presence within material art spaces.


Listen to the interview on Bad at Sports, Episode 263.

KW (cont.): And two questions she raised were, very simply, “Why do we always have to talk about race when we talk about people of color creating beautiful stuff?” and “Is it ever possible to create an authentic moment without referencing race first?” She tried it, and she did a really amazing job. But there’s also a further provocation within that. Beyond my own material blackness, beyond the material ethnicities [of my subjects], whether they be from Sri Lanka or Lagos, Dakar, or Rio or Afghanistan; how do we, the collective viewers, look at ourselves when we look at these subjects? I think that it’s auto-reflexive. Because the artists ultimately respond to the public.

RH: I’ve always thought of a portrait as a site of empathy. And this is why I want to know these individuals, because I feel that you’ve given me an opportunity to look at them as deeply and as closely as I might desire without any social consequence. Yet in that looking I have to recognize what I’m doing. I’m objectifying, I’m enjoying, and in that same moment I think, “What happens if I meet that person? Or does this person really exist?” It becomes a set of spinning questions. In one sense, I’m responding to the things you’re telling me that you want to see happen in the work, but I’m still questioning and going back to the point of artistic responsibility, which I don’t subscribe to by any means; the idea that we charge the artist to be the redeemer is just completely unacceptable to me. But if we’re going to talk about economies and try to disentangle this question of ethnicity—

KW: You simply can’t.

RH: Then we’re back to acknowledging the questions of a colonial history.

KW: This is a material question. Certainly it’s a question about colonialism, empire, race, and all of that. But let’s bring it back a couple steps. Let’s talk about the artist’s desire to go beyond the pictorial or the representational and the desire to create the abstract—the idea that painting can go beyond what is seen. What we found is that, increasingly, painting became about paint, its own material truth. When I’m talking about the way that we look at others and the way that we see ourselves increasingly, looking at others becomes its own material truth.

DMK: That brings up a question that I have thought about for years in relationship to your work. You are often contextualized as a conceptual artist, but it was not the conceptual devices at play that I responded to in your works; it was their aesthetics. So to hear you speak that way about painting, I think, “Ah, I was right! He’s an aesthete.” The conceptual and the aestheic can coexist, but which is the more dominant one at play?


Kehinde Wiley, Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel), 2011; oil and gold enamel on canvas, 115 x 79.75 in. (framed). Collection of Blake Byrne. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA.

KW: That’s a very good question with regards to aesthetic and conceptual intentions. I happen to be a twin. I grew up half of my life with someone who looks and sounds like me. And I believe it’s possible to hold twin desires in your head, such as the desire to create painting and destroy painting at once. The desire to look at a black American culture as underserved, in need of representation, a desire to mine that said culture and to lay its parts bare and look at it almost clinically. I think it’s possible to allow an artist to go beyond his borders and play.

DMK: What does your brother do? How similarly did you and your brother grow up?

KW: My mother put me into art school when I was eleven years old with my twin brother. He was the star of the art school, and I was the little brother. After awhile, there was a stick-to-itness that had nothing to do with material, mechanistic talent. While I thought, “I love this shit,” he got bored. Eventually, he went into medicine and then business, and now he’s a very successful businessperson in California.

In the end, not everyone has the opportunity to be litmus tested the way that we were. My mother, very early on, took me into experiences that I would never have imagined for myself. In 1989, during Perestroika, when I was twelve years old, she sent me off to Russia to study art at an art camp. What was that? It had to do with a type of sponsorship, a type of knowing, and a type of radical contingency on her part. This was a single mother, with six kids, who was just trying to get through it and keep them from what she knew, growing up in a small town outside of Waco, Texas—Downsville—doing sharecropping. Do they even sharecrop anymore? My mother was sharecropping in Texas. She ended up going into the Marines, Okinawa, Japan, the GI Bill, UCLA linguistics, African linguistics, meets this African guy, happens to be my father, here we all are. This shit is magical and crazy. You happen to be who you are.

DMK: Actually, it does sound magical and crazy. It’s one of the things that interested me in your story, as well as the fact that you, more than almost any artist I can think of in your generation, have a real celebrity, which puts you in places like on the USA network’s Characters to Watch list, and working with Puma, and in all of these really amazing, strange places to be as an artist. It is amazing that you’ve been able to traffic both in pop culture and in the high-art culture of visual arts.


Kehinde Wiley. Kalkidan Mashasha II (The World Stage: Israel), 2011; oil on canvas, 56.88 x 41.5 in. (framed). Private collection. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA

KW: One of the weirdest things that happened to artists and art criticism was this moment when everyone got cynical and stopped believing in the ability to engage the world in all of its myriad purposes, transformations, and incarnations. If we believe in the artist, can’t they come back with a certain type of truth? I believe the artist is capable of contributing to the broader evolution of culture in all of its dimensions. I can do paintings, but I can also talk about my very good friends who happen to be supporters of the arts, who happen to be musicians. Michael Jackson called me shortly before his death, and one of the things that you must know is that this man knew a lot about the history of art. The portrait that I created of him was based upon a long back-and-forth conversation with him about what it means to be an aristocrat. Is it good enough to be an aristocrat, or do you want to be royal? And what’s the difference between all of that? These things mean something. They don’t die when their times go. Feudal Europe is over, but it found its way into film culture. It found its way into postmodern painting culture, and we’re all here talking about it today. It still lives. I don’t believe in ghosts, but these are contemporary ghosts.

RH: You’re talking about some pictorial conventions that remain in our way of looking and thinking, and you mentioned earlier that there should be play. So what conventions do you like to play with?

KW: I like to play with the conventions around what we expect of paintings historically. But I also like to play with the conventions that you expect from a Kehinde Wiley painting, too.

RH: Many of the painting are unhinging in their beauty, and some of them are so large-scale that they’re really physically demanding of the viewer. Is there play in that?

KW: There’s play in the sense that I am working with models from India and Sri Lanka, and their bodies are so different from black American bodies.

RH: How so? What were you specifically struck by?

KW: I was specifically struck by the task of painting them. It was a joy. There’s always a joy in newness as a painter, and in sub-Saharan Africa, I encountered different realities with regard to light and how it bounces across the skin. The way that blues and purples come into play. In India and Sri Lanka, it was no different. It became a moment in which I had an opportunity to learn as a painter how to create the body in full form, and that’s a very material and aesthetic thing. This is not conceptual. It’s all an abstraction. At my best, I try to approximate the light, the yellow ochres and burnt sienna that I needed to use on my palette. And we’re all very uncomfortable with this, because the idea of locating ethnicity and color on a palette with specific tones becomes very literal, and it becomes almost tyrannical, but that’s what the painting object is. The question then becomes, “How does an artist deal with the idea of the body becoming immaterial?” These are real people that you meet and spend time with, and when they’re my material, the process is to take a photo, look at that photo, change it, augment it. Everything that you see in this painting is not what I saw in the streets. The question of the viewer is, What’s actual?


Kehinde Wiley. Mahmud Abu Razak (The World Stage: Israel), 2011; oil on canvas, 88 x 68 in. (framed). Private collection. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA.

AM: The politics of skintone is such a hot topic and not just in African American culture. It seems that every culture has some obsession with either being too light or too dark. Is that something you play with when you paint? Are you accurately reporting people’s tones, or do you change them to make more of a sociopolitical statement?

DMK: And what is the difference between the feelings of the work when they’re photographs and when they’re paintings? What are your feelings as producer when you make those shifts between those two media? ’

KW: Yes, there must be changes. There is no truth. What happens for me is that there are things that I can heighten, diminish, and relish within painting that can happen on Photoshop. The work is manipulated through digital means, and that’s a starting point, but the actual painting is where it really ends. I’ve created a vocabulary surrounding how to paint from digitally manipulated source material in such a way that it becomes like music for me. There is no calculus for the way that artists do their do. Your best as an artist is to create something that resonates for you. When I look back at these paintings, they don’t give me a sense of where I was when I first met that guy. They don’t give me a sense of what I felt like when I first saw that original source material. They give me a sense of the world that I’m trying to create. And we all just have to deal with that.


Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Kehinde Wiley encountered the world of classical European portraiture in the galleries of the Huntington Library, which he frequented as part of free weekend art classes his mother enrolled him in when he was eleven years old. Wiley went on to earn his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (1999) and MFA from Yale University (2001) and became an Artist-in-Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem. It was then that Wiley began to apply the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth, and prestige to the representation of a group of people absent from museum walls—urban black and brown men. He emerged on the art scene in 2003 with a series of portraits of young Harlem men staged in grand poses of the European portrait tradition while dressed in the baggy jeans and logo-emblazoned T-shirts so pervasive on the street. The subjects vie for visual attention with the vibrant, richly detailed patterns that fill the background and often threaten to overtake the figures.

Beginning in 2006, Wiley expanded his vision with his series The World Stage, traveling the globe to explore the black diaspora and the global phenomenon of urban African American youth culture. His focus has been on countries that he believes are part of the conversation in the twenty-first century. The resulting series of paintings from China, India, Brazil, Senegal, Nigeria, and Israel each uniquely map the models within their native or adopted countries and explore their local culture, incorporating aspects of regional history, traditional patterns and designs, and sly nods to the social and political milieus in which they live.

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