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Chance, Choice and Kehinde Wiley’s 21st Century Portraiture

Kehinde Wiley stands before his 2014 stained class series installed in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Kehinde Wiley stands before his 2014 stained class series installed in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. (Photo: Travis Fullerton, VMFA) Travis Fullerton, VMFA

More than 50 works by globally-acclaimed artist Kehinde Wiley are on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The artist has filled museum and collectors’ walls with large-scale paintings that depict people of color in grand and regal ways. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find details about Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic and related events through September 5th at the VMFA, visit the artist's website and watch the PBS documentary An Economy of Grace.


Kehinde Wiley’s portraits at the VMFA are striking in detail, electrifying in color and expansive in size. But one of the first you’ll see is much smaller, simpler with a plain, white background. It was inspired by a police mugshot profile Wiley found on the streets of Harlem.

Kehinde Wiley: On it you could see the infractions, you could see his face, you could see a type of potential for portraiture and what I decided to do was to turn that moment into actual portraiture.

In the 2006 painting, a young black man, head slightly tilt, looks straight at the viewer. There’s a sadness in his eyes, a weariness in his expression. But he looks strong, resilient. Red, black and white beaded necklaces fall down his chest, out of the frame. At the bottom, in faint gray text is 99 82 69 7 Q. Studying the mugshot, says Wiley, made him think about the choices involved in portraiture - what to wear, how to pose - and when those choices are absent.

Wiley: I decided to take the act of choosing and turn that into an entire field of pursuit. The act of going through art history books and choosing moments from the past, the act of deciding how you want to be dressed and positioned. All of those choices are sometimes complex and simple but in the end they’re the subject matter of this body of work.

Kehinde Wiley: a New Republic is a mid-career retrospective for the nearly 40 year old artist. It includes his “monumental” portraits; bronze busts and sculptures; smaller altarpieces; and in a darkened room, a series of large portraits painted on glass, illuminated from behind that reference saints in stained glass windows.

Sarah Eckhardt: This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity for a conversation and a moment to stop, pause and really look at the paintings and engage them individually.

Sarah Eckhardt is the VMFA’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art.

Sarah Eckhardt: He's asking a lot of those questions about power, about who's doing the looking, who’s being looked at, who gets represented and who does not get represented. He’s thinking about the history of art and gender, the way that women are portrayed versus the way men are portrayed. There’s a lot going on in each of these works.

Kehinde Wiley often finds his subjects by approaching strangers on the street. They’d page through art history books together to find a European master’s work to reference in composition and pose. He’d photograph the subjects in that historical pose, wearing whatever clothes they wanted. Many came in their everyday attire, leading to Wiley’s unique combination of realism, classical art and the contemporary styles of black men.

Wiley: Every painting exhibition has a series of questions that it provokes, art at its best is provocation. When you look at my work, I want you to say, Who are these people? Why are they in these paintings? What gives them a right to be in a grand museum? How do we choose to celebrate certain people in society? That ultimately has a lot to do with not only the artist who paints pictures but the culture that applauds the types of pictures that are being made. Painting is a social act and as much as it says something about what we enjoy looking at, it also says a lot about what we police, what we allow to be on the great museum walls throughout the world. In this body of work, I'm saying yes to people who happen to look like me and I'm saying yes to a myriad of history that is both beautiful and terrible, both inspiring and sublime. I think what you're looking at here is a set of questions but also a very small bit of answers as well.

As Wiley built his studio, he began leaving his comfort zone, traveling to China, Brazil, India and his estranged father’s homeland, Nigeria.

Wiley: What I've done in the past is to explore not only the Americas but parts of the world that have been influenced by what we do. Hip hop has been beamed out into the world and then consumed by the world's young people, they create elements of their own culture and shoot it back towards us. What I've done as an artist is to destabilize my studio practice, take myself to places like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Sao Paulo and Beijing, ultimately trying to fashion a new way of looking at youth culture in the broader American sense of cultural domination but also how to fashion portraiture in a new way in the 21st Century.

The 2014 documentary An Economy of Grace captures Wiley as he navigated more new territory - finding female subjects.

Kehinde Wiley (An Economy of Grace): Do you mind if we ask you a couple questions? Woman: Like what?

In this series, also featured in the VFMA exhibit, Wiley worked with a Givenchy designer to custom-make gowns for the subjects.

Models (An Economy of Grace): I’m actually scared to touch it, it looks too nice to touch… I get to put this on, I wish I could keep it...

The backgrounds of Wiley’s paintings are also remarkable. Rather than putting his subjects in a specific scene or place, he develops a pattern based on decorative art, wallpaper and architecture. Sometimes, these bright and intricate designs glide into the foreground, over and around his subjects.

VMFA Director Alex Nyerges says all of this - the skill, subject matter, complexity and playfulness of Wiley’s work - combines to make a stunning and powerful exhibit.

Alex Nyerges: It’s meaningful on a personal basis because it really addresses one of the most core issues we have in this community and I talk about it broadly in Virginia, but it’s all about people. People of every walk of life, of every ethnic background because what Kehinde Wiley does is bring out the grace and the beauty of the people who are his sitters and his models and does it in such a powerful and elegant way.

The black journalist Touré calls Kehinde Wiley’s work “revolutionary.”  “But the real revolution,” writes Touré, “is not happening with his brushes but within his mind, where he sees us as beautiful and then figures out how to get the world to see that too.” Wiley, when asked what he’s most proud of, returns to the ideas of choice and chance.

Wiley: I'm most proud of the fact that I survived. It had nothing to do with me, it had everything to do with luck not pluck, and the fact that chance drives not only my presence here today but the things that I choose to paint -- is an homage to that truth. Chance is what makes me paint one person rather than the other. Chance is what unifies this project. I don't want to organize too broadly who gets to be painted; I want a chance to drive it. I want someone who happened to be minding their own business, trying to get to work, to fast-forward months from now -- now being hanging on one of the great walls of the greatest institutions throughout this world. Chance is what I'm most proud of because in the end it has very little to do with me.

The Kehinde Wiley show is organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It’s only traveling to seven museums in the United States and will be on display at the VMFA through September 5th. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.