By Jay Cheshes for Wall Street Journal Magazine
As lockdowns began spreading around the world last winter, artist Kehinde Wiley, 43, was working in Norway, shooting footage in the fjords for an upcoming show exploring the European landscape and seascape traditions—an “epic painting and film project,” he calls it—opening late this year at the National Gallery in London. “Gorgeous,” he says, of the Nordic locale, “but then, of course, the reality of the pandemic started to make itself clear.”
With international borders closing, Wiley, who divides his time between studios in Brooklyn, Beijing and Dakar, had a split-second decision to make. “I had to decide very quickly whether I would be returning to America or coming to Senegal,” he says. He’s been holed up ever since at his complex, Black Rock Senegal, overlooking the beach in Dakar. As places to quarantine go, it’s not so bad—complete with an infinity pool, a sauna, views of crashing surf and an in-house team of chefs.
It’s also an artist residency, which Wiley opened in 2019 with the mission of allowing artists to create work outside of a Western context. There were three artists on the property when Wiley arrived—German-Ghanaian mixed-media artist Zohra Opoku, Nigerian writer Kelechi Njoku, and American painter Devin B. Johnson, all of whom were originally scheduled to stay on for a few weeks. They wound up sequestered together for months. “We relied a lot on each other,” Wiley says, “socially, physically. We were on real lockdown…. We were on campus, working, discussing things, critiquing each other’s work.”
One of six siblings raised by a single mom in South Central Los Angeles, Wiley began his art education with a summer program at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts when he was 11 years old. He reached a new level of international acclaim three years ago when his official presidential portrait of Barack Obama debuted at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. But most of his models are unknowns—young Black men and women street-cast in American cities and inserted into monumental paintings inspired by artists such as Diego Velázquez, John Singer Sargent and Titian. Posed heroically in classical style, wearing baseball caps, tank tops, Timberlands and sweats, they stand out against brightly hued backdrops. His fans include Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz.