Artist Kehinde Wiley, who has twice exhibited at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, is accustomed to setting ordinary people in powerful positions in his paintings.
Now he’ll be putting a powerful person in an extraordinary setting as the artist chosen to create the official White House portrait of former President Barack Obama.
It’s the pinnacle of a 14-year career for the Los Angeles-born artist and a textbook example of how quickly life can change for artists.
In 2015, Wiley was an up-and-coming artist only beginning to receive widespread recognition for his soulfully gritty, yet elegant paintings.
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He has exhibited at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth twice in the past nine years including an exhibit that ran September 2015-January 2016 . One of his pieces from 2007-2008 sits in the museums’ gallery today.
“He came to Fort Worth and he did a lecture and it was sold out,” said Kendal Lake, the communications director at the museum. “The auditorium seating was sold out and even the cafe seating was sold out. It was really popular.”
The 122-by-122-inch oil on canvas portrait is a New York City street-life twist on the Equestrian Portrait of Charles V. Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault.
It depicts an everyday guy from Harlem in a fur-lined hooded puffer jacket, cargo pants and a pair of Nike Dunks seated elegantly, yet powerfully, atop a white horse. The portrait dated 2007-8 is aptly titled “Colonel Platoff on His Charger.”
“His craftsmanship is exceptional,” Lake said. “He goes and meets people in their everyday life in the streets of New York and he talks them into posing for him. He has them go through books of classical artwork and choose a pose or painting. Then he puts these African-American men in a position of power in these paintings.”
He now finds himself in a rare, career-defining space. He’ll be the first black artist hired by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to paint a portrait of the U.S. president, coincidentally the nation’s first African-American president. Former first lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait will be painted by Amy Sherald, a notable African-American female artist — also a first.
“His work will look fantastic in the White House,” said Lake. “Obama’s choice is fantastic because there hasn’t been a person of color chosen to paint a president’s portrait. It was time, for sure.”