Get to Know the L.A.-Born Artist Who Created Barack Obama’s Official Portrait

Wiley brings his signature style to the presidential portrait
Anthony of Padua, 2013
Kehinde Wiley
Oil on canvas
72 x 60 in (182.9 x 152.4 cm)
Collection of the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington

Image courtesy of Roberts & Tilton

Painter Kehinde Wiley was commissioned to paint the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama, which hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. He is the second African American artist to paint an official presidential portrait, following Simmie Knox’s painting of Bill Clinton, and the first to create such a portrait to go on public view in in the Smithsonian’s collection (Knox’s portrait hangs in the White House).

Wiley is known for his instantly recognizable, often large-scale portraits, generally featuring African-Americans posed against lushly colored and patterned backdrops, evoking elements of the Old Masters of European art, but with a contemporary sensibility. The artist is particularly known for his portraits of music luminaries, including LL Cool J and Ice T (his hip-hop portraiture specifically was the basis for a 2008 exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, where his Obama commission is displayed).

St. John the Baptist II (Columbus), 2006
Kehinde Wiley
Oil on canvas
96 x 72 in (243.8 x 182.9 cm)
Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art, Durham, NC

Image courtesy of Roberts & Tilton

Though he now lives in Brooklyn, Wiley was born in Los Angeles in 1977. He grew up in South Central, steeped in urban and hip-hop culture. At 11, he began formal art training, attending conservatory classes on the weekends, and soaked up everything he could from L.A.’s art museums. From there, he went on to study at the Art Institute of San Francisco and Yale before settling in New York.

His work has been shown extensively around the world, from the galleries at LACMA, the Hammer Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, to the VH1 Hip Hop Honors Awards, and a billboard campaign for Nike. Wiley is represented by the Roberts & Tilton gallery in Culver City, which has staged five shows with the artist in recent years.

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