MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Race has always been the focus of artist Kehinde Wiley’s work. He famously replaces black figures for white ones in classical paintings as a remedy for the historical invisibility of black men.
But looking back on his early attempts tackling racism and stereotypes, he admits it was boring and forced. Wiley spoke with music powerhouse Swizz Beatz, whose real name is Kasseem Dean, on Monday night as celebrities and artists descended for the week of festivities that have come to define Art Basel Miami.
“I was making cliche race art until I started realizing that race was at once everywhere and nowhere. It was something that became a unifying feature of my work, but then something that just happened to be part of the work,” Wiley said.
Wiley, who painted President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery, unveiled his historic “Rumors of War” in Times Square last month — a massive bronze statue of a young African American man in urban streetwear astride a galloping horse.
The eight-ton, 29-foot-high work is his way of changing the dialogue around Confederate statues. A call for inclusivity, he says of his work which mimics a statue in Richmond, Virginia, of a Confederate general and will be moved there at the end of the year.
He’s fond of turning stereotypes on their head, being a “disrupter” as Dean called him, taking people who have historically come from a perceived place of non-existence and putting them squarely in the forefront of his works.
But making those works relevant and available to the masses is still a struggle.
“The art world has been this ivory tower that by design has been exclusive, that by design people have felt intimidated by,” said Wiley, who sat down for an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
That power struggle was flipped again when he interviewed as a candidate to paint Obama’s portrait. Suddenly the artists known for giving voice to the voiceless was about to be commissioned to depict the most powerful man in the world.
“I’m in the Oval Office, my hands are shaking,” he said, recalling how he and Obama went through various poses and paged through art history books discussing the importance of letting the president’s personality shine through.
When Dean asked whether Barack or Michelle was the boss in the room, Wiley demurred, but eventually revealed, “I got a call and (Obama) said, ‘the first version that you made, I love it, but Michelle doesn’t’, he laughed. “I swear I wasn’t going to talk about this.”
Turns out the former first lady thought the piece was missing some of Wiley’s signature style, he said.
“There’s something really great about stepping outside of yourself and creating history and creating legacy.”
That’s why Wiley created Black Rock, a new artist in residence program in Senegal where artist from around the world will create “a new series of interesting conversations that spurs a dialogue surrounding the potential of Africa,” said Wiley, whose father is from Nigeria.
“I grew up with these televised ideas of what Africa meant and then over time I started to understand the difference between images and realities.”
So, what’s next for the renowned artist?
“I’ve been obsessed with stained glass. I have a studio outside of Prague. I’m working on some very dramatic stained glass.”