Meet Kehinde Wiley, artist behind Obama’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery

The official presidential likeness of former President Barack Obama was unveiled on Monday at the National Portrait Gallery.

The artist behind the first black President’s portrait is an African American of Nigerian ancestry, Kehinde Wiley.

Mr. Wiley was born in 1977 to a Nigerian father and an African-American mother who met when they were students at the University of California, Los Angeles. He and his five siblings were raised in South Central Los Angeles by his mother alone who relied on welfare benefits and earnings from the family thrift shop.


At age 11, young Kehinde was enrolled in free weekend art classes, and was taken to museums including the Huntington Art Gallery, whose collection of British 18th- and 19th-century portraiture gave him an early familiarity with the genre. He became “keenly aware of the signifiers of power, the implications of the traditional portrait, which are about privilege, power, elitism,” said Eugenie Tsai, curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s 2015 midcareer survey of Mr. Wiley’s work. “He was looking at a world that he was not included in.”

Mr. Wiley studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, then got his M.F.A. from Yale University. Upon graduation, he became an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem , and soon experienced a visual epiphany.

He chanced upon a crumpled sheet one day that turned out to be a police mug shot of a young black male. “I’m just this kid walking through the streets of Harlem,” he said. “I see this piece of paper, and I’m looking at him, and he’s got these weird necklaces on. He’s got this really beautiful, sympathetic face. And I’m like, ‘This has to be a portrait!’”

Mr. Wiley keeps studios in Brooklyn, Beijing and Dakar, Senegal.

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