The artist on being the first African American to paint the presidential portrait, Michael Jackson’s surprising art knowledge and the inspiration of lovers
Born in Los Angeles in 1977, Kehinde Wiley is best known for his large-scale portraits in which black people occupy scenes from notable old European paintings. Most of his models are cast on the street, though Wiley has also portrayed celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Ice-T. Earlier this year, he was chosen to paint Barack Obama’s official portrait for the Smithsonian, to be unveiled next year. His new show, In Search of the Miraculous, is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London W1, until 27 January.
Tell me about the show.
It’s definitely a departure from what I’ve done in the past. I’m looking at the history of maritime painting, so water is one of the key figures in the work. Depicting the ocean has always, in the west, been about voyage, about conquest, but this show is also about migration, madness and displacement. In a sense, it’s about America and where she is right now.
Has the past year – Trump’s election, the travel ban, racial tensions in America – affected your work?
I have a studio in west Africa, my father is from west Africa, my body is from west Africa. Bodies travelling through water is very important in this show, be it black bodies travelling across the Atlantic to become the founders of my country, building the economy, building the conversations that led to our revolutions and our civil wars and our hip-hop and our blues – sure, that’s in there. As is the conversation surrounding Europe and Brexit and how we choose to define ourselves.
You were one of six siblings raised by a single mother in South Central Los Angeles. Was it a difficult childhood?
It was an amazing childhood, despite what you might think about black struggle and poor neighbourhoods and the ghetto. My mother was an educated budding linguist who really inspired us. Some of the leading indicators of success in the world have to do with how many books are in the house when you’re a kid.
Were there many books in your house?
Boy, were there many. There were many languages too. And I had so many interesting experiences. As a kid, I used to sell junk in the street – that’s how we survived. I had to engage with complete strangers and sell them stuff.
Were you the arty one in the family?
I was. My mother sent me and my twin brother to art classes when I was 11 years old. She wanted us to stay away from gang culture; the sense that most of my peers would end up either dead or in prison was a very real thing. So we were on buses doing five-hour round trips every weekend to go study art.
Was that a pleasure?
That was a huge pain in the ass. My brother ended up in love with medicine and literature and business – he’s in real estate and finance now. But me, I really got the art bug. I went on to art school in San Francisco and to Yale for grad school. Then I moved to New York, had my first show, people liked it, and here we are.
You make it sound straightforward.
I see it as a series of lotteries. I can line up for you a thousand ways that this could have been something else. That’s why my work is about chance. That chance where someone’s minding their own business walking down the street and I tap them on the shoulder.
How do people react when you approach them in the street and ask to paint their portrait?
It’s different in the west, where we have that just-add-water, Kim Kardashian sense of celebrity. In certain parts of the world, that amount of attention is usually associated with state power, which is usually associated with violence, and people run for the hills. But once I show them examples, they think it’s pretty cool. There’s something really cool about taking oily coloured paste and pushing it around with these hairy sticks and making something that looks like you. That’s the magic of painting.
When your subjects see their finished portraits, what kind of reactions do you get?
Tears and all of that. But sometimes it’s: “That don’t look like me. That’s not the way I see myself. That’s not the pose that I chose.” You’ve got to be prepared for the whole range.
You’ve painted famous people, such as Michael Jackson. How did that happen?
He called me. He saw one of my works at the Brooklyn Museum, a very large equestrian portrait of a young black man in the pose of Napoleon crossing the Alps. He said to his crew: “I need to meet that artist.” At first, I didn’t believe it. Eventually, a mutual friend said: “Will you please answer the fucking phone?” And so we set something up.
What was that like?
It was extraordinary. His knowledge of art and art history was much more in-depth than I had imagined. He was talking about the difference between early and late Rubens brushwork. OK, why not? One of the things we talked about was how clothing functions as armour. And if you look at the painting, he’s on horseback in full body armour.
Now Barack Obama has been in touch. Tell me about that.
I can’t. I’d like to. I can tell you that I’m the first African American artist to create the portrait of the president. It’s a huge responsibility.
Have you done it already?
I’ve shot all the images – we literally shot thousands and thousands. It’s been a really fun process in which he’s been involved – but I’ve already said too much.
Where do you live?
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.
What took you to China?
A friend of mine is both an artist and an airline stewardess. She told me years ago, there’s a really cool scene going on in Beijing. I went, met this little-known guy named Ai Weiwei, rented a studio, went back and forth, met someone romantically…
What’s the scene like now?
It evolves, it’s a work in progress. There’s features of it that I think are completely new and exciting, such as the way that people engage with social media – in a completely different way than they do here in the west. At the same time there’s less of the social scene that used to happen in the early 00s where artists would come together and be at each other’s studios. There’s a lot more westerners coming through there. It’s sort of being discovered.
Where’s exciting right now, in terms of art scenes?
West Africa. Places such as Lagos are exciting – Yinka Shonibare, who’s a good friend of mine, is opening up a studio there. And I’m working on my project space in Senegal, which will have artists in residence. When I first came to New York, I was artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem and they gave me $500 a month. I would sleep in the grounds of the museum and make my paintings. That made me the artist I am today and I want to be able to pay that forward.
Do you ever miss those days of $500 a month and sleeping in a studio?
I don’t miss the lack of creature comforts because it sucked. People often romanticise the notion of a starving artist. That’s bullshit. Artists should be able to thrive and allow their ideas to flourish as much as those in biotechnology or finance. It costs money for me to fly to the Congo, to get people to record sound and shoot video and do security and what have you. It is ridiculous to assume that contemporary artists should be in some romantic space of deprivation.
Where do you find inspiration?
I think it comes with lovers. There’s something really special about a sexual relationship where you’re bound with each other for years and you start to see the world through each other’s eyes. It’s something that rarely gets talked about in conversations about art. Most people talk about artists as the sole individual makers of ideas, the genius that interfaces with the culture. And it’s actually a lot more collaborative than that. Much of this show is about the collaborative spirit. This is my first time being back in the UK since the Brexit vote, which had a lot do with wanting to be autonomous, to stand alone and make Britain great again.
Can you understand that impulse?
I can, because it’s scary out there, there’s a lot of moving parts. But there’s a reason why we [humans] all have different colours, because we’re works in progress. We started in one part of the world and started moving and kept on moving for thousands of years. There’s no one fixed notion of the UK, or America, to be made great again. What we have to do is adapt. If you want to posit new ideas about how to proceed, you don’t start by saying: “This was the way it was 25 years ago, let’s go back there.” Come on! The genie is out of the bottle and we have to learn to deal with each other.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010