Sammy Nickalls
November 01, 2015 11:40 am

When New York artist Kehinde Wiley, 38, looked at famous paintings of the past, he noticed something very unsettling. It was all so…very…VERY…white.

“If you look at the paintings that I love in art history, these are the paintings where great, powerful men are being celebrated on the big walls of museums throughout the world,” Wiley told CBS News. “What feels really strange is not to be able to see a reflection of myself in that world.”

So Wiley decided to take matters into his own hands. His artwork features men of color who are wearing street dress. . . but painted in classical styles, often resembling the great paintings we all know from history. It all started when he found a mug shot on the street. Wiley was chilled by the revelation that this is how black men are too often represented in images- as criminals. “It crystallized something that I’d been thinking about for a very long time, which is that black men have been given very little in this world, and that I as an artist have the power and the potential and the will to do something about it,” he told CBS.

And do something, he did. After walking the streets of New York and asking men of color if they’d like to be photographed and painted, his paintings quickly became immensely popular, selling for as much as $400,000 a pop. In fact, if you’re an Empire fan, you may even recognize Wiley’s work, as they’ve been used as a backdrop in the FOX series.

“We have a black president, and that is a sign of progress in many ways, but we still read in newspapers every week about young black men because their bodies are in our streets,” Wiley wrote in Paper. “There’s significance in that and, as an artist, I have to negotiate a response that is at once critical but also curious about how this could change.”

Stars like Michael Jackson have commissioned portraits from him, while VH1 has ordered an entire series from Wiley featuring rappers.

“I stand on the shoulders of many great artists whose work emphasizes the importance of diversity in American society,” Wiley wrote in Paper. “Black lives matter because it’s a prescient thing to highlight in this moment of cultural evolution. But black lives have mattered for thousands of years. My interest is in the now — what does it feel like to be black in 2015?”

Wiley has even been compared to Andy Warhol, and though he is not yet 40, a survey of his career is currently in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. “His work has a broad appeal, to high art culture mavens as well as to people who don’t know anything about art but [who] are taken by his references to hip hop and to street culture,” Eugenie Tsai of the Brooklyn Museum (where Wiley opened) told CBSI think one of the hallmarks of great art is a little bit of ambiguity, where things aren’t spelled out for you. There’s room for interpretation on the part of the viewer.”

There are some portraits, like “Napolean Leading the Army Over The Alps” (above), that take a stand not only for racial representation, but for the takedown of traditional gender roles. “In small ways, [in ‘Napolean. . . ‘,] I’m talking little jabs at the masculinity, the bravado, and even with the fact that there’s sperm cells, taking this masculinity down to its most essential component,” Wiley told CBS.

But even though his work is absolutely brilliant, Wiley is still totally taken aback by his rise to fame in the art world. “I started making work that I assumed would be far too garish, far too decadent, far too black for the world to care about,” he told CBS. “I, to this day, am thankful to whatever force there is out there that allows me to get away with painting the stories of people like me.”

Related:
This artist created a costume to make a powerful point about rape culture

Why everyone is talking about this interactive art display, “The Rain Room”

(Images via Twitter.)

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