By Julian Lewis
Soliciting pedestrians in the Matongé neighborhood of Brussels, Kehinde Wiley, forty-five, looked more like a sidewalk canvasser than he did a world-famous artist. He sidled up to strangers in an orange hoodie and lime-green Air Jordans, extending a hand and flashing a gap-toothed grin. In nearly fluent French, he explained that he wanted to paint them, and offered to pay three hundred euros if they came in for a photo shoot the following afternoon. Most passersby ignored him or gave excuses: jobs, parking meters, and even a preference for being pictured exclusively from behind. For those who stopped, Wiley produced an exhibition catalogue, flipping through pages of classically posed portraits with models who were Black like them.
It was early April, still freezing in the medieval city that Charles Baudelaire thought full of “everything bland, everything sad, flavorless, asleep.” On the Chaussée de Wavre, a busy street lined with ads for cheap wire transfers and “100% Brazilian Hair,” many responded warily to the artist’s invitation. “You did these?” some asked. Others wanted to know if they could dress as they pleased. “It’s your portrait,” Wiley assured one skeptic. “Oh, is it?” the man replied. Another prospect not only refused but ejected Wiley from a multistory complex of barbershops and wig emporiums, jabbing him in the chest with an indignant forefinger as he warned that it was no place for an artist.
Wiley took a drag from his cigarette—Benson & Hedges, the brand he’s smoked since high school—and then waved his assistant, cameraman, and studio manager down the block. Rejection keeps him humble, the artist insisted. But he also felt certain that those who walked past would eventually see his work and have a different reaction: “Holy shit, I missed out on that?”
Among the people whom Wiley did persuade, the clincher was often his Presidential portrait of Barack Obama, confidently seated before a flowering wall of greenery. Everybody knew that face—but who was this painter, coming on like a hustler in the city of spies and chocolatiers? He explained his background to a candidate from Congo: “My father is Nigerian, my mother is American, and I’m lost.”
Wiley excels at the pickup line, a crucial ingredient in a practice that parallels cruising. “I’m an artist and you’re a work of art,” he told a man named Patrick, who was sipping a beer in sunglasses and a fur-trimmed leather coat. The very image of an unflappable sapeur—Congolese French for “dandy”—he was still so excited by Wiley’s attention that he dragged him off to meet a group of friends. They subjected the artist to a raucous sidewalk interrogation.