Portraiture and Political Youth Culture
By Iona Bielby
The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery recently announced that Kehinde Wiley has been selected to paint the official presidential portrait of US President Barack Obama.
In an interview with CNN on the 24th March 2017, Wiley discussed politics in his portraits, claiming that portraiture is a choice—that it is the ability ‘to position your body in the world for the world to celebrate you on your own terms.’ This statement heightens our anticipation to see how he will represent President Obama.
Wiley is famous for his fashionable and edgy portraits of hip-hop and street fashion, making him a rather unusual choice for such a prestigious political portrait. Previous subjects of Wiley's portraits have included the Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool K, Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, and Michael Jackson. None of these people are political, per say, but perhaps the choice in presidential painter is not as random as one might think. Wiley’s portrait does not just commemorate the two terms of one president, but a change in the way American politics and youth culture interact.
Wiley’s portraits are structured similarly to Old Masters paintings, oozing power and prestige, yet they are set against decorative and brightly coloured backgrounds, creating an interesting juxtaposition between the past and present, tradition and innovation. As described on the artist’s website (kehindewiley.com), his paintings implement the ‘sublime in his representation of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world.’ If Wiley paints Barack Obama as he has painted previous subjects, one can only expect Obama sporting gym clothes, posing against a loud background, tinged with a hint of irony, as according to his 2015 CNN interview, the artist enjoys ‘painting the powerless much more than the powerful.’ This irony, combined with subject matter and compositional style, is the link that will make a political portrait so relatable among American youth, emphasising the power that portraiture represents - not only the power of a person, but the power of a political age. That is, by depicting a political figure in the language of youth culture, the two entities (politics and culture) are combined, representing the direction of a nation.
But perhaps what is most intriguing about the anticipation of Obama’s portrait is what Wiley has to say about art and its role in society. In an interview with the Brooklyn Museum on his 2015 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, A New Republic, Wiley commented, ‘Art is about communicating power—communicating the aspirations of society.’ He asks, ‘What is it about the trappings of empire and power that we can use in the 21st century?’ Wiley’s determination to question the power of the past and the present is a determination that reflects the spirit of an American youth culture. If his presidential portrait is anything like his insights on power, beauty, and humanity, then his job of artist—of communicating the aspirations of society—will be complete.
Brooklyn Museum. “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic”. Filmed March 2015 YouTube video, 3:42. Posted March 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHx4lFPqPiI.
CNN. “Artist reimagines classic paintings with modern twist”. [Filmed June 2015] YouTube video, 5:59. Posted June 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofX8JOl8sbo.
Minsker, Evan. "Barack Obama Chooses Kehinde Wiley to Paint Official Presidential Portrait." Pitchfork, October 15, 2017. https://pitchfork.com/news/barack-obama-chooses-kehinde-wiley-to-paint-official-presidential-portrait/.