Obama portrait artist promotes diversity, representation in St. Louis
3 October, 2018
In June 2017, artist Kehinde Wiley and his team came to St. Louis in preparation for an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Saint Louis Art Museum opening this fall. Wiley interviewed and photographed St. Louis residents looking for models for what would become 11 new paintings commissioned by the museum.
If Wiley’s name sounds familiar, it is because last February Wiley became the first African-American artist to paint an official portrait of a U.S. President when the National Portrait Gallery unveiled his portrait of Barack Obama.
Wiley creates large-scale oil paintings of contemporary African-American subjects that address race and representation in art. Inspired by traditional European and American portraiture, Wiley depicts his models in poses and scenes adapted from historic paintings.
For the St. Louis exhibition, which has been years in the making, Wiley was interested in broadening his scope. He visited the museum galleries and ultimately selected eight works to reference — including an American sculpture and an early 20th century German Expressionist painting. Wiley then led his team and museum staff to neighborhoods in North St. Louis and Ferguson to talk to community members and recruit models for his paintings.
“It was an incredibly positive experience for all of us,” said Hannah Klemm, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art. “Kehinde made everyone feel very included in the process. As soon as Kehinde explained what he was doing and why we were there, the community was really excited to talk to him and be a part of it. They liked that he was an artist who wanted to portray them as people.”
In all, Wiley recruited more than 20 people to come to the museum to be photographed in poses inspired by
works in the collection. Not all of the models photographed will be in the exhibited paintings, but St. Louis had a higher turnout of those willing to sit as models than in other cities where similar exhibitions have occurred. Many of those who participated as models had not previously been to the museum.
While the paintings that inspired Wiley will not be part of the exhibition, guests will be able to use the gallery guide to find them on view elsewhere in the museum. One inspiration painting to keep an eye out for is “Charles I” by Daniel Martensz Mytens the Elder. The portrait inspired two of Wiley’s commissions — one with a male sitter and one with a female sitter.
The exhibition is entirely free and open to the public, something that was important to the museum when planning the show.
“In the end, I hope people are excited about the fact that members of their community and paintings from their museum are here together,” said Klemm.
The exhibition is one example of the community-centered focus for which Brent Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, will be honored in January when the Arts and Education Council presents him with Excellence in the Arts at the 2019 St. Louis Arts Awards.
“Kehinde Wiley” opens October 19 at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The artist will discuss the exhibition and his practice in a free talk at the museum October 19 at 7:00 p.m. For more information, visit slam.org.