Kehinde Wiley, In Words




Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California. His father, Isaiah D. Obot, is Yoruba, from Nigeria, and his mother, Freddie Mae Wiley, is African American. Wiley has a twin brother. When Wiley was a child, his mother wanted him and his brother to stay out of the streets and so she supported their interest in art and enrolled them in after-school art classes. At the age of 11, Wiley and his brother were selected with 48 other kids to spend a short time at a conservatory of art in Russia, just outside St. Petersburg. It was here that Wiley developed his passion for portraiture. Wiley noted that his brother was better at portraiture than he was and this created a competitive sense between them. The siblings would compete to see who could recreate the most realistic images. He continued with other classes in the US and attended high school at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.

The twins were raised by their mother; once their father, who had come to the US as a scholarship student, finished his studies, he returned to Nigeria, leaving Freddie to raise the couple’s six children. Wiley has said that his family survived on welfare checks and the limited income earned by his mother’s ‘thrift store’ – which consisted of a patch of sidewalk outside their home.  Wiley traveled to Nigeria at the age of 20 to meet his father and explore his family roots there.  He was strongly influenced by seeing the works of Gainsborough and Constable. He earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and then received a scholarship to complete his MFA at Yale University School of Art in 2001. While at art school, he says that the most important lesson he learned was to create art that he wanted to make, not art that his professors wanted him to make.  Before becoming an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which Wiley has later stated “made [him] the artist [he] is today.” Jeffrey Deitch, an art dealer and curator, gave Wiley his first solo show – Passing/Posing – at the Hoffman Gallery in Chicago in 2005.  Deitch represented him for the next 10 years.  Wiley has cited the artist Kerry James Marshall as being a big influence on him.


  1. Mothering
    • My mother sent me to art classes at the age of 11. I began to have kids around me say, ‘Will you make drawings for me? Will you make a painting for me?’ And it really clicked.
    • I grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the ’80s, back when it just wasn’t a cool scene. But my mother had the foresight to look for a number of projects that would keep us away from the streets.
    • I was surrounded by art by virtue of not only the educational opportunities that my mother’s foresight availed me to.
  2. Fatherhood
    • At age 20 I went to go find my father in Nigeria. And after much toil, I finally figured out exactly where he was. And there’s something about seeing your father for the first time – my mother destroyed all pictures of him.
    • There was no image of the other biological half of myself. And as an artists, as a – as an – as a portraitist, the look of who you are was radically important to me.
  3. Parenting
    • [My parents] met in university back in the ’70s. And I didn’t grow up with my father. He – they separated before I was born.
  4. Self
    • When you’re at your best, you’re analyzing yourself and becoming increasingly isolated from a broader narrative.
    • I think that just the nature of art education in schools, it’s about packs, you know? Like, we’re young wolves running together, creating a consensus. And consensus is antithetical to the art process.
    • I think that once you’re able to sort of get in line with who and how you relate to the world, you’ll become closer to this index that I’m referring to. Because what you want is this card that relates to that book. What you want is this human that relates to this world, rather than having this art school society scattering that point of view somewhere in between. It becomes diffused. And that level of clarity, I think, was gained at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
    • I think what’s really interesting and useful about this question is that ultimately all art is a type of self-portraiture. And so in the act of identifying yourself, you’re using others to get to that point. And so you’re parsing out different aspects of different people in the world. You’re choosing not only from America but increasingly globally different aspects of what’s out there.
    • I rarely meet a lot of the people who buy and collect my work.
  5. Intimacy
    • I think that I’m increasingly aware of the fact that in order to work towards any statement that’s radically global or universal, you have to start in a place that’s radically intimate and particular.
  6. Inclusivity
    • There’s quite obviously the desire to open the rule sets that allow for inclusion or disclusion. I think that my hope would be that my work set up certain type of precedent, that allowed for great institutions, museums and viewers to see the possibilities of painting culture to be a bit more inclusive.
  7. Duality
    • 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, something that you might be able to locate in the work that I’m creating today: the ability to look at a black America as something that not only can be mined in a very sort of cynical, cold way, but also embraced in a very personal, love-driven way; but also sort of critiqued.
  8. Pragmaticism
    • In the Studio Museum in Harlem, when I was dealing with that community and dealing with my peers in the streets, it allowed for me to get outside of Yale, to get outside of art-speak, and to really think about art as a material practice that has very useful and pragmatic material precedent.
  9. Sensitivity
    • I would imagine that what you try to do is to – is to be as sensitive to the environment that surrounds you as possible. As you see, my work has become increasingly global. My presence in the world has become increasingly global.
  10. Story Telling
    • 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.
  11. Habitation
    • Just physically, if you looked at the house that I grew up in, my mother created this greenhouse. And surrounded the entire property. And there was, like, trees and sculptures and like – it was, like, this crazy, like, secret garden space.
  12. Slavery
    • It’s sad, the enslavement of the black underclass to designer labels – we’re an age that cares more about Versace than Vermeer.
  13. Spirituality
    • I love the idea of engaging religious sentiment and how that vocabulary has evolved over time.
  14. Personality
    • For me, I wanted to create something that’s much more driven by a type of selfishness, a type of decadence.
  15. Globalization
    • What’s interesting about my project recently is that I’m going out into broader global spaces but then isolating at the same time – sort of pushing out but then pulling in.
    • What we have now is a communication ability. We have the ability to see working ideas that are going on in the great cities throughout the world and whether you live in Shanghai or you live in Sao Paulo, you have the ability of seeing and knowing the ideas of some of the greatest minds of our generation.
  16. Global Village
    • United States
      • Chicago
        • 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.
      • New York City
        • There’s a team of filmmakers who follow me in the streets when I’m finding these models, to give me a sense of legitimacy to a casual stranger. This is New York City. No one’s going to follow you back to your studio.
    • Russia
      • I was 12 in 1989 during perestroika, when my mother found a program that sent me to Russia to study art in the forests outside of Leningrad.
      • It was probably one of the things that gave me a sense of possibility and allowed for me to see beyond the small community that I existed within. You know, I was making friends with young Soviet kids. this is during perestroika. You know, there’s bread lines and vodka lines. The entire social structure of what was then the Soviet Union was radically different from what we know today.
    • Israel
      • I was recently in Israel doing my work and casting for models in the streets of Haifa and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, meeting young Israelis and Palestinians and Falasha, Ethiopian Jews who had migrated to Israel in the ’70s. They’re obsessed with Bob Marley. They’re obsessed with Kanye West. They’re obsessed with resistance culture, people who find that they’re not necessarily comfortable in their own personal and national skin.
    • South Africa
      • There’s something really cool about being able to fly to South Africa and watch one of the most talented African footballers wearing a shoe on the field.
    • Africa
      • It felt really radically uncomfortable. And I was really not sure at first about releasing that body of work. But then the more I thought about it, the more I thought that that position, that location, is something that’s just sort of interesting in its own right, as an experience, as a process. Again, we’re talking about this rubric, this set of rules, this grid that I toss on top of different locations globally. This is what came out of Africa.
    • Europe
      • 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.
  17. Art
    • Art is about changing what we see in our everyday lives and representing it in such a way that it gives us hope.
    • I think that at its best, painting can be an act of juggling perceptions, a hall of mirrors. And it can be a bit confusing and scattering. But as the artist, as the man behind the velvet rope who controls the smoke and the mirrors and the way that things move in the painted space, what I want to do is to try my best to be a good witness.
    • What I love in art is that it takes known combinations and reorders them in a way that sheds light on something that they have never seen before or allows to consider the world in a slightly different way.
    • I think there’s something important in going against the grain, and perhaps finding value in things that aren’t necessarily institutionally recognized.
  18. Art – Background
    • 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.
    • Unlike the background in many of the paintings that I was inspired by or paintings that I borrowed poses from – the great European paintings of the past – the background in my work does not play a passive role.
    • On the contrary, my desire is that the viewer sees the background coming forward in the lower portion of the canvas, fighting for space, demanding presence.
    • The backgrounds by design are a very key part of the conversation, because I want a kind of fight or pressure to exist between the figure and the background.
  19. Art – World
    • The art world has become so insular. The rules have become so autodidactic that, in a sense, they lose track of what people have any interest in thinking about, talking about or even looking at.
  20. Art – Ideation
    • There are just so many different types of people that come into my studio, and secondarily, there’s the idea of ideation, like, “Who are you and what do you see in yourself in this other person?” So many different people that you would see so many different things.
  21. Art – Culture
    • What’s interesting about the 21st century is how people deal with cultural history. We don’t necessarily feel like there are discrete categories. We consume it as a complete package, whether it’s down the street or on the other side of the globe.
  22. Art – Cynicism
    • 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.
  23. Art – Political Correction
    • 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.
  24. Art – Service
  25. Art – Boldness
    • I started making work that I assumed would be far too garish, far too decadent, far too black for the world to care about. I, to this day, am thankful to whatever force there is out there that allows me to get away with painting the stories of people like me.
  26. Art & Life
    • I think my life has been transformed by the ability to take things that exist in the world and look at them more closely. I think that’s what art does at its best: it allows us to slow down.
  27. Art & Power
    • The games I’m playing have much more to do with using the language of power and the vocabulary of power to construct new sentences. It’s about pointing to empire and control and domination and misogyny and all those social ills in the work, but it’s not necessarily taking a position. Oftentimes, it’s actually embodying it.
  28. Art & Performance
    • This idea that my work is about hip-hop is a little reductive. What I’m interested in is the performance of masculinity, the performance of ethnicity, and how they intermingle across cultures.
  29. Painting
    • In my work, I want to create an understanding, not about what a painting looks like but about what a painting says.
    • What’s great about it is that painting doesn’t move. And so in the 21st century, when we’re used to clicking and browsing and having constant choice, painting simply sits there silently and begs you to notice the smallest of detail.
    • Like commercial stuff is sort of cheap and disposable and fun and can be sort of interesting in many ways. I love being in popular culture and existing in the evolution of popular culture. But it’s so different from painting, and it’s so different from that sort of slow, contemplative, gradual process that painting is.
  30. Painting – Culture
    • 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.
  31. Painting – Story Telling
    • While it may seem a little mundane, the material realities of realizing the painting actually have a lot to do with how you should read the painting. For example, we assume that what the model is wearing is what we found him in in the streets. No; in fact, a lot of what happens is that in Photoshop certain aspects are being heightened or diminished. There is no actual material truth in these paintings.
    • You know, the process, I think, is the story. And it goes back, again, to what I said about chance and about radical contingency, the idea that all of this is this well-oiled machine that’s been reared up and, like, really articulated and thought about.
    • I pay my models to work with me, so there becomes this weird sort of economic bartering thing, which made me feel really sort of uncomfortable, almost as though you were buying into a situation – which, again, is another way of looking at those paintings. The body language in those paintings is a lot more stiff.
  32. Design
    • I’m fully capable of multitasking certain conceptual concerns within the work.
  33. Artist
    • This is something that, as artists, we constantly deal with-throwing away the past, slaying the father, and creating the new. This desire to throw away the old rules.
    • I think that artists provide questions, not answers. We provide provocations rather than fully formed objects.
    • I believe the artist is capable of contributing to the broader evolution of culture in all of its dimensions.
    • The artists ultimately respond to the public.
    • Women are expected to identify gender as a starting point. Ethnicities are expected to identify that as a location. Is it ever possible for the artist to imagine a state of absolute freedom? That was my call to arms.
  34. Artist – Economy
    • You know, I’m incredibly blessed to be able to have this level of choice as an artist today. In this economy, it’s something that I, you know, pinch myself at constantly, just thinking about how I could wake up tomorrow and decide I’m going to start painting this or that. So it’s good.
  35. Work
    • I began working within the streets of Harlem, where, after graduating from Yale [University, New Haven, CT], I became the artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem [New York, NY]. I wanted to know what that was about. I would actually pull people from off of the streets and ask them to come to my studio.
  36. Education
    • I suppose in the end what shift occurred – is that at Yale I began to become more materially and conceptually aware of the mechanisms that gave rise to those types of patterns and paintings. And so the copying that happened in the childhood was a much more conscious type of copying in later years.
    • I studied shades, textures by painting after the Old Masters, the classical European paintings, as part of my educational process.
  37. Twin
    • As a twin, I operate with twin desires.
  38. Twin Brother
    • [My twin brother] he was the star artist of the family as we – as we were growing up. He eventually lost interest and went more towards literature and then medicine and then business and so on. But for me it became something that I did well. And it felt great being able to make something look like something.
  39. People – Business Relationships
    • Michael Jackson
      • You know, one of my – one of my best and, I think, most enlightening moments was when I was contacted by Michael Jackson. And he requested that I paint his portrait.
      • In our conversations, he [Michael Jackson] revealed a surprising understanding of art history. We were going through the finer points of the difference between one Italian sculptor to the next. You know, this – these are things that we don’t necessarily assume of people in sanctified light.
      • He [Michael Jackson] would choose specific moments. They were art history books that I prefer. They were paintings that he prefers. It’s this dance back and forth. We were halfway through the dance. He died.
  40. People – Educators
    • Joseph Gotto
      • I had an amazing instructor, Joseph Gotto , who, as a painter, spoke to me as it – he didn’t condescend.
    • Mel Bochner
      • I think one of the things that I took from Mel [Bochner] specifically was his ability to look at oneself and one’s relationship to the history of art and the practice of art at arm’s length, the ability to sort of clinically and coldly remove oneself from the picture and to see it simply as a set of rules, habits, systems, moving parts.
      • Mel [Bochner] sets a very high standard. He expects only the best and most thoughtful and rigorous examinations, not only of the history of art but your own practice.
  41. People – Inspiration
    • Kerry James Marshall
      • I think, at the L.A. County Museum of Art, I saw my first example of Kerry James Marshall, who had a very sort of heroic, oversized painting of black men in a barbershop. But it was painted on the same level and with the same urgency that you would see in a grand-scale [Anthony] van Dyck or [Diego] Velazquez. The composition was classically informed; the painting technique was masterful. And it was something that really inspired me because, you know, these were images of young, black men in painting on the museum walls of one of the more sanctified and sacred institutions in Los Angeles.
  42. Personhood
    • When I’m at my best, I’m trying to destabilize myself and figure out new ways of approaching art as a provocation. I think I am at my best when I push myself into a place where I don’t have all the answers.
    • I’m like a gypsy. I’ve got a place in Beijing, a place in New York, a place in west Africa; I’m working on a place in Colombia. I like the fact that painting is portable – and I’ve wanted my entire life to be able to see the world, to respond to it, and make that my life’s work.
  43. Evolution
  44. Culture
    • My mother’s from Texas. Small town outside of Waco called Downsville. And my father’s from Nigeria. And so I guess I’m properly African-American.

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