2016 Regions Riding Forward® Winning Essay by Ginger B.

Contemporary American culture would not exist without the contributions of ethnically diverse individuals, including black individuals. One such example of a contemporary revolutionary is the painter Kehinde Wiley. Wiley is a contemporary artist who brings the lives of the everyday individual into the context of historical art. His approach utilizes individuals of ethnic minorities whom he randomly chooses from public spaces such as the Bronx, where he grew up. 

As an artist, Kehinde Wiley inspires me in more than one way. One of the biggest reasons is for his attention to the reality of minority individuals. Wiley reaches out to individuals and highlights them in a world where minorities are still under- and misrepresented. In an interview by Artnet, he states, “Looking at those images on the museum wall, didn’t really avail me to images of people who happened to look like me”.  Because of his marginalization as a homosexual black male, Wiley recognized that there wasn’t much representation for his demographic in art.  He also recognized that, although there is a greater attention to diversity in the media, it does not always properly reflect the kinds of lifestyles of these individuals. Therefore, Wiley challenges perceptions of minorities, both within art history, and within our own modern understanding. 

Another way that he inspires me is that he depicts not just black individuals, but also such groups as Hispanics, like myself, and Asians. He goes around the world, including such places as Haiti, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Israel and Jamaica, and seeks the average people. He paints them with all their individual characteristics, such as clothing and tattoos, and rejects any sort of idealization, which creates this beautiful perspective on how beauty and elegance is found within everyone. Because he poses these individuals in the guise of Renaissance pieces, such as Napoleon Crossing the Alps, and the Three Graces, he is presenting images that challenge ideas of beauty as well as power. 

Finally, I find Kehinde Wiley inspiring because his exhibitions challenge the stereotypes of the portrayals of minority individuals within the media. He rejects the glamorized ideal of what colored people “should be”. Most prominently, he takes the people who we perceive to be “thugs” and allows them to occupy a space where they seem as elegant and sophisticated as the models from the ancient portraits, challenging stereotypical precepts of those individuals of color who dress and act differently.  

Kehinde Wiley is inspiring as an artist and as an advocate for change in our perception of minority individuals. He has personally inspired me to go out and produce my own artwork on such individuals. He has also inspired me to question our marginalized society and how we portray different ethnicities in the media through a lens of stereotypes. Through the lens of art, he has addressed the issue of minorities in a beautiful and yet shocking way, and for those reasons, I think he is a revolutionary that should be praised as such.


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