US-based artist Kehinde Wiley’s latest exhibition, 'An Economy of Grace', steps away from his previous subject matter as his first ever series dedicated to female subjects. The focus of the collection is the marginalising of African-American women within art history and society’s ideas of feminine beauty.
Following his exhibition, Wiley talks to us about his inspirations and the concept behind his artwork for Santigold’s album cover - as shot by photographer Jason Schmidt, with Santi appearing as three different characters (two of which are Bond Girl-esque "lady-guards" who wear custom-designed gold Alexander Wang bodysuits, the third is a mafia Don seated between his two attendants) Whilst behind the threesome is a painting of Santi as an army officer designed by Wiley himself.
Dazed Digital: How did you first get into art and illustration?
Kehinde Wiley: I began with studying art back in LA as a young kid. I first went to art school when I was about 11 and went to big museums in Southern California. On weekends I would go to art classes at a conservatory. As an undergrad at the Art Institute of San Francisco, I really honed in on the technical aspects of painting and being a masterful painter. And then at Yale University, where I did my MFA, it became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity, etc.
DD: Who or what inspires your work?
Kehinde Wiley: Classical European paintings of noblemen, royalty and aristocrats. I was trained to paint the body by copying the Old Master paintings. Whenever I do photo shoots for paintings, I pull out a stack of books, whether it be something from the High Renaissance or the late French Rococo or the 19th century. I take the figure out of its original environment and place it in something completely made up. Most of the backgrounds I end up using are sheer decorative devices - things that come from things like wallpaper or the architectural façade ornamentation of a building.
DD: What were the inspirations/the concept behind the piece/artwork for Santigold's album cover?
Kehinde Wiley: The historical painting reference that we looked at for Santi's portrait is Portrait of Sir Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds
DD: What parallels do you feel link your illustration style to her music, if there are any?
Kehinde Wiley: Santi and I are both concerned with decentralising a certain aesthetic taste. Our influences are also similar, pulling from places like Brazil, West Africa, and Sri Lanka. Aesthetically Santi and myself both have an abiding interest in finding parallels between cultures and genres.
DD: What are your favourite subjects to cover and why?
Kehinde Wiley: My goal is to be able to paint illusionistically and master the technical aspects, but then to be able to fertilise that with great ideas. I want to continue to challenge myself, to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited about what new projects are over the horizon.