Kehinde Wiley

The Making of Magic

Interview by Shaquille Heath // Portrait by Brad Ogbonna


Dear reader, If you have picked up this magazine it is likely for one of three reasons. One, you love Juxtapoz, and for that, we thank you. Two, you love the work of Kehinde Wiley, and in that, we join you. Or three, you were out-and-about in the world when the image on the cover of this issue beckoned. It so struck you that it became a personal mission, a visceral urge, a divine calling, to discover more about the artist with the magical mind who made such a portrait, and with that, we welcome you. 
I specifically remember the moment I saw my first Kehinde Wiley work, strolling about the Seattle Art Museum when they exhibited A New Republic. I remember looking up at Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, ready for the horseman to jump out of the canvas—and trample me—with both hooves and Timbs. I believe I stood in front of Judith and Holofernes for a good fifteen minutes, ready to get on my knees and wash the feet of my newfound queen. Throughout the exhibit, feelings swirled around in my mind. Even today, when I stand before a Wiley work, words tend to escape my brain. I smell color. I see music. My skin tingles with goosebumps. Plainly, his work unlocked something from within, and for the first time, art made so much sense to me. 


Fall 2022 Cover Story: An Interview with Kehinde Wiley
All images courtesy of Kehinde Wiley and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles


I’m sure that if there was a list of people who shared this exact same experience, that note paper would go `round the world twice, in twelve-point font. The man’s a legend. But what exactly is the magic formula that conjures such allure? Is it the path of dignity that he’s forged upon gallery walls for those with Black skin? Is it his fearlessness in reconfiguring the notion of masculinity? His adoration of the Black male body? Is it the floral backdrops that splendidly encircle his sitters in Mother Nature’s nurturing hands? His compulsion, not to whitewash, but to rewrite history? His ability to both honor and critique? To paint dark skin like gently warmed Hershey’s chocolate? There are a thousand more, but his ability to balance them all on a tightrope is clearly more than just a trick of the hand.
Just this past year Wiley opened the exhibition An Archaeology of Silence, on view at the Venice Bienniale, where his meditative works explored the despair and exasperation with young Black mortality. An exhibition at the National Gallery of London, The Prelude, placed Black sitters at the forefront of Western landscape traditions, expanding on his hallmark, the absence of Blackness within European art. But it’s not always so heavy, like his portrait of Dr. Dre for an Interscope Records exhibition at LACMA. He has mentored artists through his Senegal-based artist-in-residency program Black Rock which he founded in 2019 and kept afloat throughout the pandemic. And, of course, his monumental portrait of former President Barack Obama continues to travel around the United States, years after its historic debut. And, and, and… That’s a lot of magic.
Now it’s a pastime of mine to watch Wiley’s numerous interviews and immerse myself in his soothing baritone. After allowing his words to echo in my subconscious there is one particular quote of his that has stuck with me: “Art should do more than point. Art should have an opinion. It should be something that says, ‘I believe in this more than that.’” 
But at its core, isn’t magic just the application of actions to mold belief? And with all that is going on in the world, the little magic that remains has seemed to crumple into a pile on the floor. What is often left for me is the magic of art—and in that, I still believe.


Fall 2022 Cover Story: An Interview with Kehinde Wiley


Shaquille Heath: I'd love to start referencing your exhibition The Prelude that just closed at the National Gallery in London, specifically the video work that anchored the exhibition, which featured black Londoners traversing Norway's fjords and glacial landscapes. During the film, subjects would stare at the camera, snowflakes stinging their faces as they unflinchingly maintain frozen grins. I heard you say, “The smile becomes this interesting metaphor when looking at the film. How does one at once project one thing when there's another going on inside?” For Black people, this is constant. In that vein, my question to you is how does Kehinde Wiley take care and find joy? 
Kehinde Wiley: How do I take care of myself and find joy? I suppose the work that I do is a way of engaging a deeply beautiful and terrible world and having the ability to say something about it. That allows me to feel less powerless, even though I know art has no revolutionary capacity at its core, it's entirely revolutionary.
On an individual level, perhaps I can't affect radical and broad change, but I think if I allow my work to point to the things that make me happy in the world, it nods towards the gravitational pull of the moral world that I want to live in. Something like that. 

I am continually intrigued with the duality that accompanies the existence of Blackness. We often hold onto one existence while avidly carrying out the performance that is necessary for our survival. The Prelude, in particular, really hammers this notion home. Can you tell me your personal interest in exploring this concept within your work? 
Well, The Prelude, this sort of snowy austere, icy, mountainous, vertical space, as exemplified by the Norwegian fjords, is a stand-in for any number of environments, rooms, societies, or practices that consider me an outsider. This body of work is about navigating that space, but also, it's about building community and play and joy within the outside, or the “outsider position.” It oscillates between a desire to be accepted and a desire to paint the world as it is. 


Fall 2022 Cover Story: An Interview with Kehinde Wiley


Community is such a fundamental part of your work. Your Trickster series showcases the incredible community of artists around you, and I've heard you speak about how essential this has been for your evolution and growth as an artist. Community also seems to be at the center of your artist in residency program in Senegal, Black Rock, which brings together artists from all over the world to engage with Africa. Your website refers to "a void that so many of us hope to fill,” so talk to me about being at the center of creating this important space over the past few years.
Building community is really important because it works. The only reason why I am where I am is because some key people took a chance on me and allowed me to learn from them and to build upon the knowledge and skill sets that they carried. I try to create a space wherein the blast zone and the touchstone for that conversation happens in West Africa. 
The idea is to invite people, creative people from every nation and of every color, to Africa and to explore not only their own creative practices but to explore Africa itself and perhaps be transformed by it. In so doing, I hope that I'll be enriching artists’ lives, enriching the continent of Africa, and in a very selfish way, enriching my own life. 

Going back to The Prelude, and this may seem a frivolous observation, but one thing that strikes me is just the idea of seeing Black folks in nature, period. Seeing these landscape portraits that feature Black hikers and explorers feels like a radical act. I presume this was intentional, but please tell me more. 
Yeah, I think there's something really great about nature, especially pictured in landscape paintings. I'm thinking about Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), for example. In his work, nature becomes this place where one can go and find oneself or empty oneself out and discover anew, without and within. 

For me, the radical act in this painting is about Black subjectivity. In the original painting, we are encouraged to look at the man, the white male subject, standing and staring out into the vastness of nature. And we're encouraged to wonder what he's thinking, encouraged to wonder what is the nature of his interior lining, his psychological space. That effort, that tenderness, that psychological care, and closeness have rarely been afforded to Black people in painting or in the arts at large. 
A really cool and tender thing about that painting is the fact that it invites you to see the world through his eyes and to wonder what he's thinking. What's going on inside of him? What are his dreams and what are his fears? How does he interface with the terrifying heights of these spaces?


Fall 2022 Cover Story: An Interview with Kehinde Wiley


You often find the subjects of your works at random on city streets. After all this time,  have you learned the nature of the initial attraction? What are the influences involved in what I imagine is a split-second decision? 
A split-second decision, but there's oftentimes a moment to watch people move, and body language, to watch how they dress and adorn. To watch how they fit into society. 

What I'm creating is a collection of portraits, but I'm also pointing at myself. I'm the one doing the looking. This is arguably a large self-portrait project since I'm the one doing the selecting. So, it's the world as seen through my very specific lens. When I'm sharpening that lens, focusing that lens on someone, I concentrate on a sense of style, a sense of joy and self-possession, and a sense of gravitas. 
After you invite someone for a sitting, the two of you work together to select the pose based on historic portrait paintings. In this same spirit, after all this time, I'm curious to know what you've learned about what people are attracted to in portraiture. What are the works and poses across art history that continue to intrigue us? 
Well, to be honest, a lot of men are attracted to swords and sticks—objects to smite someone with. People are attracted to swords, horses, domination, and war. It's a kind of fascinating thing across the history of art, and it hasn't changed in all these centuries as exemplified by the choices that are being made. 


Fall 2022 Cover Story: An Interview with Kehinde Wiley


Currently, your exhibition, An Archeology of Silence, meditates on the deaths of young Black men all over the world and is an expansion of your body of work DOWN from 2008. This exhibition portrays Black figures in a variety of horizontal poses at the hands of state violence. In some, it's very clear that the figure has been slain, while in others, you could almost garner that they're at rest by virtue of how peacefully they lay—if it wasn't for the vines and flowers that draw the body back into the earth. In 2022, after working with this content for decades, and after the reckonings of 2020, what are your thoughts about having to continue making work about Black death? Are you exasperated? How does this impact your work? 
I don't feel any obligation to make any certain type of work. I feel drawn to making work in response to vulnerability and states of power in painting. The core DNA of my work is about the impossibility of the type of masculinity that's being beamed into the world by virtue of American culture. I certainly look forward to making art in a world in which these types of other answers were not possible. 
Interscope Records celebrated its 30th anniversary with an exhibition at LACMA that featured artworks inspired by their musicians. You contributed a work “The Watcher,” featuring fellow South Central luminary Dr. Dre, in which you reimagined the album cover for 2001. Maybe a silly question, but sincerely, tell me about your choice of the D.R.E.
I grew up in the Crenshaw South Central area of Los Angeles. In the ’80s and ’90s, Dre was essentially the soundtrack to my coming of age. The Chronic was one of those primary centralizing cultural touchstones that we, my twin brother and I, my early friends, and my artistic collaborators, all have in common. As the culture continues to evolve and language becomes more and more complex, these essential moments, touchstones in the culture, only continue to inspire and inform the evolution of culture. 


Fall 2022 Cover Story: An Interview with Kehinde Wiley


I've heard you say that growing up in South Central, your mother wanted to get you out of the hood and immerse you in culture. I find that so interesting in a few ways, one is that it seems that contemporary culture is often focused and centered around Black ideas and creators. And that second, your work ends up merging the hood front and center on the museum wall and constitutes it as high culture. 
Well, the centrality of Black creative content is relatively new in the American experience, at least in terms of popular culture. My mother was someone who was trying to keep me away from street and state violence. And she was trying to find an arts organization that could literally do the babysitting, keeping us away from the ills of society at the time. Fortunately, it was a cultural program. It was an arts organization. So, I stuck with it for a number of years and it's led to where we are now. 
You're so well-known and regarded for your portrait of President Obama. But I also imagine, like all good things, that it has come at some sort of cost. How have you had to work to expand people's knowledge of you and your art to more than just one (incredible, thoughtful, nuanced, beautiful…) painting? 
Well, it's clear that the Obama portrait has made me incredibly recognizable as an artist, but it's also clear that I would've had to gain a certain amount of respect and notoriety in order to be invited to make the painting in the first place. 

My hope is that through people constantly discovering the Obama portraits that both I and Amy Sherald created, they'll be able to see that as an entryway, a gateway through which they can explore some of my lesser-known bodies of work and understand that my work has continued to change and evolve, as the world has. 


Fall 2022 Cover Story: An Interview with Kehinde Wiley
Juxtapoz Fall 2022 Quarterly, with cover art by Kehinde Wiley


Please tell me what you're working on now. I've heard you've got something new cooking up for November. 
I'm working on my next exhibition in Los Angeles at Roberts Projects, which will feature, perhaps, some surprising ways of exploring the Black body and landscape. 
Kehinde Wiley will be the inaugural exhibition at the new Roberts Projects space in Los Angeles from November 18, 2022—February 18, 2023. 

The Fall 2022 Quarterly is available in print at