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BHM: Regal Portraits

February 11, 2019

During assembly on Monday, February 11, senior Sofia Di Lodovico spoke about the power of contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley's portraits. Here are her remarks:

Today, for Black History Month, I am going to tell you about an artist I really admire. His name is Kehinde Wiley.

You might recognize him because of his remarkable accomplishment as President Obama’s official portrait artist, but I came across him looking at patterns. I just love floral patterns on fabric, tapestries, paper, anything — and his work is full of them. But what makes me such a big fan of his work is his process. Now is the time when I apologize in advance for a little art lingo and art history, but I think you actually might like it this time.

Mr. Wiley’s process starts with finding the right subject. This might seem trivial, especially for a portrait artist, but he walks the streets of Harlem, Florissant, even parts of Brazil and Nigeria, as well as other historically Black communities and asks people if they would like to be one of his portrait subjects. Next is my favorite part. He asks the people to come into his studio wearing what they think would look best for their portrait. He then takes pictures of them in traditionally European poses that you might see in a French or Italian aristocrat's portrait from the Renaissance — all the while making sure it is something they are comfortable with, and that they are depicted as they would like to be seen. Next he Photoshops the background of his choice and begins to paint.

After Incredibly hard manual labor, his finished product might look like these [right]. Honestly, they give me goosebumps every time I see them. I mean the amount of detail in these works is incredible, and they tower over you like a statue of a president or a mythological being. And every singe leaf, every fingernail was painted with extreme care. But what I think makes them so wonderful is how they celebrate Black culture. I heard this phrase in my feminism class once: “using the master’s tools to knock down his house." And I think this phrase applies perfectly. Wiley is using portraiture and paint, media that were reserved for European upper class white people, as a tool of empowerment for Black people all around the world.

It not only celebrates the individual subject, but the community and the culture by having them pick what they wear, and look like noble, powerful and important individuals. Now you can walk into the Met or the St. Louis Art Museum and see regal portraits of people of all races.

And for me his work is exactly what we need to see more of during — and after — Black History Month.