Art History

Obama, Kagame, Sall… Meet Kehinde Wiley, the artist who paints presidents | Pro Club Bd

The audience surprised the team. It was to be an evening reserved for artists, relatives of the big boss and the capital’s cultural elite. But since word of mouth is like that in Dakar, suddenly dozens and dozens of people are standing in front of Black Rock’s big door. In the small cul-de-sac that leads to the artists’ house created by Kehinde Wiley, the night owls wait as if they were standing in front of the door of a nightclub. Most of them come straight from the Douta-Seck cultural center, where the opening of the very first Black Rock exhibition took place on May 20th.

Undoubtedly delighted by the success of the evening, with almost 1,500 visitors, Kehinde Wiley invited some VIPs to continue the party at her place, little knowing how many people this invitation will once again attract. Overwhelmed by the crowd, the American painter finally asks those responsible for his security to get everyone out. Only a privileged few will be able to stay and enjoy the magnificent view from the villa built on the seafront where the party will last until dawn.

Models and Presidents

At 45, Kehinde Wiley wants to make an impression and he stands by it. With his imposing stature, big smile and shimmering outfits, he doesn’t go unnoticed. Affable and hospitable, he spent several weeks in the Senegalese capital for the Dakar Biennial, staying at his artists’ residence, which since its inception in 2019 has welcomed artists from all over the world.

At the time of Black Rock’s inauguration, the hip-hop star’s darling was in full swing. Soul singer Alicia Keys, model Naomi Campbell and other friends made a grand entrance. Youssou N’Dour also came to greet the host. “His mark on Dakar’s artistic landscape is undeniable,” says Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop, who calls Wiley “big brother.” But when the two artists met in 2014, the American was not yet a global celebrity.

That didn’t happen until 2017. That was the year Wiley became the first black artist to paint an official portrait of a US president. And not just any president: Barack Obama. Wiley was thrilled when he was contacted. “I wanted to be the one to do this portrait. I really wanted it.” For practice, he painted portraits of several African heads of state, including Macky Sall and Paul Kagame. A series he is still working on.

The artist draws inspiration from classical European works for his characteristically anachronistic paintings. The figures proudly ride their steeds in a conquering stance, sword in hand and ruffled collars at their necks. It was the presidents themselves who chose the paintings Wiley would work from: “An interesting way of guessing her character,” he says with a smile. Justified The Labyrinth of Powerthe upcoming exhibition is an “experiment on perceptions and negotiation spaces around the concept of power,” he says.

Both the famous and the unknown

The depiction of the Black Man in art was a constant preoccupation of the artist, who began his career painting unknowns, using poses from art history books. He is obsessed with the contrast between his subjects – black, young, from disadvantaged communities – and the gilding that adorns Renaissance paintings. From his roaming the streets of Harlem to find models to the Dakar Biennial, Wiley never stops questioning the image of black bodies in art and proposing new ways to represent the spaces from which they have been excluded , to be filled.

After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute and a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University, the painter has embraced a meticulous pictorial realism that borders on photography. His brightly colored paintings, often full of floral motifs, show glowing black faces raised to icons, famous like Obama or Spike Lee or completely unknown – several Black Rock employees have served as models for their boss. These hyper-realistic portraits are colourful, exuberant and even ironic.

Wiley also points out that he was concerned with the figuration of landscapes as painted by old European masters such as Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) or Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). In his exhibition The Prelude, presented at the National Gallery, London in late 2021, we saw the evolution of his art from the portrait tradition to landscape painting, which always questioned the dynamics of power and privilege.

“The depiction of landscapes in classical European works is not insignificant: it is both a symbol and a tool of the Empire in the expression of its rule,” says the painter.

He has paved a path for many black artists to walk happily and with their heads held high

For his friend Omar Victor Diop, who shares his intention to create a vision “that leaves more room for the dignity of black bodies,” Wiley’s work is both crucial and unique. “He goes back in history and ennobles the elements of contemporary black reality in his own way. Everyone [else] whoever tried would undoubtedly fail. He has paved a path for many Black artists to walk happily with their heads held high. In that respect he is important, in Dakar as well as in New York.”

“Black Excellence”

The residency he founded in Senegal stems from the same search for black excellence. “The idea has always been to bring a level of skill and artistic rigor that meets international standards,” explains Wiley. “I want to change the narrative of African art so that our productions are not at odds with those of London or New York galleries.”

The concept was inspired by his own experience of spending several months in residence in New York almost twenty years ago. “I wanted to recreate that bubble of intimacy and creation that I was experiencing at the time,” says the man, who wanted to build a “luxurious sanctuary” for the chosen artists. With a spa, gym, infinity pool, and individual triplex rooms with bay windows overlooking the ocean reserved for each artist, Black Rock is an island of splendor cut off from the world.

Gaby-Dior Dieng, who joined the Black Rock Senegal team in 2021, confirms: “The tranquility of the artists is very important. As soon as they step through the dorm door, all worries are gone. That is the real luxury: making sure you only focus on your art.”

The founder encourages his protégés to be autonomous, but also to stimulate exchange among themselves and with the artistic community. Described by his teams as challenging and instructive, the charismatic man who exudes exuberant generosity is happy to take on the role of mentor.

Back to his roots

When not in New York, Kehinde Wiley divides his time between Dakar and Lagos, where he reunites with a father who was absent during his childhood. During his first trip to West Africa in 1995, the artist discovered Senegal. He was then on his way to Nigeria in search of a father and a country he knew little about. A great return to his origins, like those of many African Americans before him. Since then, he has never stopped returning to both countries to better escape the excitement of New York while still taking advantage of his “artsy” and upscale surroundings.

On the African continent, the artist rests, gardens, fishes – he bought a boat in Dakar, on which he organizes excursions for his guests – and paints. In the master’s studio in the basement of the residence, a young black man in a blue overall stares at the visitors . The painting is unfinished. “This one will be on display in Miami,” says Georgia Harrell, executive director of Kehinde Wiley Studio. Perhaps Wiley brought it back from Lagos, where he returned after his stay in Dakar, as he is used to moving his paintings around.


Behind the artist is a businessman who knows how to sell and sell himself. The Black Rock residence, which has non-profit organization status, functions solely thanks to private donations and merch – essentially items printed with reproductions of Wiley’s work. A tote bag costs CFA francs 35,000 (€53) and a down jacket costs CFA francs 360,000 (€550). Silk kimonos, t-shirts, beach towels… Everything can be bought online or at the Douta-Seck Cultural Center.

Wiley isn’t afraid to mix this bling-bling, even commercial, logic with the more committed positioning of his art. A duality that may seem paradoxical, but which he defends. “Art is inherently elitist,” he says. “It is important to me to be able to restore the dignity of models who are normally excluded from artistic spaces.”

For now, however, the residence is struggling to attract Senegalese artists. The majority of applications come from the United States, Europe, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. In order to open up to French-speaking Africa in particular, the team is trying to make itself better known to the local public. “We are building collaborations between artists in residence and artists living in Senegal. We are trying to expand the residency’s access to professional training and we are re-evaluating the spaces and places dedicated to art and artists, as we did in Douta-Seck,” says Kewe Lo, director of Black Skirt Senegal.

Black Rock Nigeria

Two years after opening Black Rock Dakar, Wiley has begun building a second arts center on the continent – in Nigeria, his father’s country. While the painter resides in Lagos in the affluent Victoria Island neighborhood, his artist residency is set up outside the city. A way to escape from the “frantic” atmosphere of the megalopolis. This second residence is said to be larger and more complete than its cousin in Senegal. A room is reserved for audiovisual productions. It will likely be able to host more artists than the Dakar residency, which has three artists staying for one to three months per session.

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