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5 Questions with Artist Kehinde Wiley

Interview by Kimberly Fisher

Kehinde Wiley’s name may seem familiar, and for good reason. A Brooklyn-based American artist best known for his portraits that render people of color in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings, including his most famous subject, Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery. Wiley became the first African-American artist to paint an official U.S. Presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2018. His collections has been shown at The Brooklyn Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

This year’s Amref ArtBall honored Wiley in New York City with the Rees Visionary Award, named after their founder Dr. Thomas Rees, which honors individuals who have changed the discourse around African and Black art. We sat down with Kehinde to talk arts, Black Rock Global Arts Foundation, and more.

Could you share your journey with us into the arts and what drove you to embrace your career as an artist?

My journey into the arts started with an early childhood educational program that my mother sent me to as a kid at the age of 11. It was an arts conservatory that had spaces for children from the inner city. It was because of that program that I was able to sidestep some of the hurdles surrounding growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the late 80s and 90s.

Your sculpture Rumors of War has been widely acclaimed. How do you perceive its impact within the context of current social and political conversations especially regarding racial equality and the reconsideration of historical monuments?

Monuments have always been important to me because I am interested in consensus. Museum culture and curatorial practices are about consensus. Monuments are what we all gather around and collectively agree upon as a statement of intent and value. The reassessing of what our collective values contain is the nature of the conversation surrounding monuments and historical address. Is it ever possible to satisfy every political and social urge publically? No. But I believe that the work that I’m creating in Rumors of War addresses some of the ills and absences that have existed art historically within this space of black figuration and monumentality.

This year at the Amref artball you will be honored with the Rees Visionary Award for your artistic practice and contribution to art, as well as for founding the Black Rock Global Arts Foundation. How do you feel about receiving this award?

This award is incredibly gratifying, specifically in its relationship to my efforts in Africa. As an artist, I’ve endeavored to forward a progressive and inclusive narrative. Here beyond just picture making, the work steps outside of the exhibition space and begins to affect the lives of young artists, inspiring their practice and their engagement with Africa as a continually evolving space.

What morals do you think your art and Amref’s mission have in common?

Amref has a very clear goal in regards to its health care mission. Art, however, exists at an interesting adjunct between the practicalities of social justice and the whimsy of an artist’s flights of fancy. At its best, all art should not be bound by a kind of dictum surrounding what it should be and what it should not be. There are moments of overlap in which an abiding desire for a corrective is achieved both pictorially and in the case of Amref, in the bodies of the African people.

Many of your works celebrate black excellence and regality. How can such portrayals be leveraged by institutions like Amref Health Africa to inspire young people, fostering a sense of empowerment and hope that contributes to improved health outcomes in Africa?

When art inspires it creates a new way of seeing something in the world that previously was perceived as fixed or indelible. The great shifts that have happened socially and culturally throughout the world have often been helped by artists. Their ability to destabilize known narratives is at the core practice aimed at equity.