Kehinde Wiley is one of New York’s most sought-after artists, with celebrity fans like M.I.A. and pieces in permanent collections across the US, including The Met in New York and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Wiley, 36, has earned acclaim over the past decade for his depictions of young, African-American men clothed in contemporary street garb and juxtaposed against Baroque and French Rococo painting backdrops. He’s also done the portraits of famous acts like Michael Jackson and Santigold. Now, Wiley’s the star of his own show, or rather, documentary, Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace. Director Jeff Dupre’s film charts Wiley’s foray into the fashion world as he prepares for one of his latest exhibits, An Economy of Grace, a series of portraits depicting African-American women in historical paintings, which was originally shown in New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery in the spring of 2012. His lucky subjects are swathed in gorgeous couture dresses, designed by Givenchy’s creative director himself, showcasing Wiley’s fascination with fashion as a form of artistic expression. We caught up with the artist at the Toronto’s Reel Artists Film Festival, put on by the Canadian Art Foundation, for the world premiere of the documentary at TIFF Bell Lightbox to hear his take on the growing intersection of art, fashion, and now, film.
The documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace will be playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, February 21st, at 7 pm. Purchase your tickets here: Reel Arts Film Festival.
How did you get into painting?
I grew up in South-Central LA in the 1980s: Blood, Crips, gang warfare. My mother actually enrolled me and my twin brother into art school when we were 11 as a way to get us out of the streets and to establish something new for us, a sense of possibility.
You’ve spoken about being inspired to explore the people around you in your work, and things you’ve never seen before. Can you tell me about this process?
Part of what’s captivating about when you see a beautiful man or woman, or a beautiful sunset, has to do with surprise. Taking people from everyday life and allowing for a level of scrutiny and ceremony allows us to re-examine what we thought we knew.
How does fashion inform your approach to art?
Fashion is such a big part of portraiture. Fashion is a part of the history of art, because, in the end, it’s all about feeling and looking great, but it’s also about fashion functioning as a type of armor. In so many of those early paintings, specialty gowns were made for the occasion and people were positioning themselves to finally be depicted in a role they’ve been preparing their entire lives for.
Fashion is also something that decays over time. So when we look at old paintings, we see what might look—to the contemporary eye—almost ridiculous, but of its time, it was just the way to be. I like to take that example and change the question a bit. I was looking at urban fashion quite intensely when I began painting. When I moved over from Yale to Harlem, I was almost immediately captivated by that African-American sense of celebration and pageantry—you go down 125th in Harlem and every week see new combinations of what it means to be a man or a woman in the streets of black America.
Your paintings draw a lot on the history of art itself. What methods to you use to pull history and the present day together?
We all stand on the shoulders of those people who came before us—I myself as an artist stand on the shoulders of portrait artists who have come before me. The question is: how do you rip that fabric and position yourself within that narrative? I don’t try to slay the father and do away with all of those lessons that we learned from their history. What I try to do is learn that language really well, but also turn the attention of the viewer back towards me: what do the black women in my life, what I grew up with, what do they look like? Do I get a chance to see them in the great museums of the world? Is it possible to be able to infuse the history of art with a bit of that swagger?
You’ve said that art should be something that gives us hope or should have a redeeming quality to it. How did this inspire your work when painting women in this exhibit?
What I’m trying to do is to shed light on each of the women that are in the film, but also use them as means of answering a larger question, which has to do with how we’ve celebrated women in the past through painting. Historically, women were painted by men who wanted them to be positioned in such a way that they were almost objects to be consumed by the eye. What happens when you start looking, as an artist, at that narrative and imagining young black women in that field? It’s a very interesting opportunity. It’s interesting to have fashion and the history of art to play a role in that transformation.
For your 2012 exhibit featured in the film, An Economy of Grace, you had Riccardo Tisci custom make the dresses for your sittings. What inspired this particular collaboration?
We had a number of conversations about the history of art—we walked through The Louvre together, he would send me drawings and ideas with notes. He loves fashion history and he knows it in such an encyclopedic way that it was interesting to get to talk about not only how a fabric lies on the body, but the ways that that fabric has been used in different time periods and how it connotes a different type of elegance, class and status.
Your images of women came from carefully constructed photos—the dresses, hairstyles, make-up. Was there a particular reason that you didn’t picture them in their street clothes, as you most often do with men?
I wanted “An Economy of Grace” to feature another way to look at clothing, another function. It goes back to the question of armor, class and status—everything was very calculated. As opposed to just talking about the exclusive nature of the clothing in historical art, I had to find the most exclusive couture house and work with Riccardo Tisci. It becomes so unthinkably special for each one of the women involved in the project that it was a much better example of the history that we were quoting.
Interview by Alex Brown