Winning Essay by Elizabeth B., Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Winning Essay by Elizabeth B., Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Several years ago, I picked up a book about an artist that I wasn’t familiar with – Kehinde Wiley. Flipping through the pages, I was gob smacked. His work was large, colorful, and blended traditional styles with contemporary subjects. His work features African-Americans – mostly males – in powerful poses traditionally used to depict lofty historical figures. His work is beautiful but what inspires me about Kehinde Wiley is how he is using his artistic voice to address the status and stereotypes of black men in our society.

He is not a household name, but United States citizens might recognize one of his recent works. Kehinde Wiley is the first African-American artist commissioned to paint a presidential portrait. And, unlike previous presidential portraits, this work is not stuffy or imperial in style. Quite different from its predecessors, the painting is approachable, refreshing, and contains a background that demands as much attention as the subject.

When unveiled on February 12, 2018, the painting of President Barack Obama set off a media firestorm. Coverage was either highly favorable or unabashedly critical and the painting’s merits were debated on most every news outlet. What cannot be argued, however, is the fact that the painting sparked conversations about art, race, and tradition that may not have happened without it. Interest in the piece resulted in a 311 percent increase in visitors at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California. His father, from Nigeria, was not present during his childhood. An accomplished artist at the age of 12, he spent time at an art school in Russia. At 20, he traveled to Nigeria to meet his father and explore his own heritage. He earned his first degree from San Francisco Art Institute and obtained his Master of Fine Art from Yale University School of Art in 2001. Wiley was awarded the 2014 National Medal of Arts – the highest form of recognition given by the federal government.

Last year, I was lucky enough to view a piece of his work firsthand at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. And while his paintings are beautiful displayed on a computer screen and printed on the pages in a book, they are breathtaking in person. As an artist myself, I am moved by his talent, perspective, and ability to challenge the status quo in the art world as well as our society. His amazing art demonstrates how far we’ve come and how far we still must go to become a truly unified nation.


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