in controversial works he described as ‘a play on the “kill whitey” thing’
- Kehinde Wiley, 41, has come under scrutiny for past paintings
- There are at least two instances where he has painted black women holding a knife in one hand and the decapitated head of a white woman in the other
- In a 2012 interview, Wiley described the portraits as ‘sort of a play on the “kill whitey” thing’
- Others include African-American males taking on the roles of the Virgin Martyr St Cecilia and king of the Franks, Clovis I
- Critics have described the works as formulaic and ‘as if it didn’t really matter what the figures did or stood for’
- Wiley unveiled his portrait of Obama at the Smithsonian on Monday
PUBLISHED: 13:46 EDT, 13 February 2018 | UPDATED: 16:56 EDT, 13 February 2018
The artist who painted former President Barack Obama‘s official portrait has come under fire for past works featuring scandalous subjects.
There are at least two instances where Kehinde Wiley, 41, has painted portraits of black women holding a knife in one hand and the decapitated head of a white woman in the other.
Both portraits also juxtapose the austere images of the women by featuring a busy floral background, similar to Obama’s portrait.
But Wiley says the paintings are based on Renaissance works by Caravaggio and Gentileschi depicting the Biblical story of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes.
In October 2017, it was announced that Wiley had been chosen by Obama to paint an official portrait that would appear in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery ‘America’s Presidents’ exhibition.
Unveiled on Monday, the painting depicts Obama seated among foliage with chrysanthemums for Chicago, jasmine for Hawaii and African blue lilies for Obama’s late Kenyan father.
Obama joked that he asked Wiley to change certain things about his appearance, including making his hair – which was jet black when he entered the White House – less grey, and shrinking his trademark big ears.
In a 2012 explanation of the work from the North Carolina Museum of Art foundation, it reads:
‘Judith and Holofernes is from Wiley’s most recent body of work and his first series of paintings to feature female subjects.
‘Wiley translates this image of a courageous, powerful woman into a contemporary version that resonates with fury and righteousness.’
In an interview with New York Magazine, he said: ‘It’s sort of a play on the “kill whitey” thing,’
Wiley, one of six children, was born to a Nigerian father and an African-American mother, but he and his siblings grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980 with just their mother.
When he was about 11 years old he enrolled in a small art conservatory, according to his website.
He went on to earn his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University, School of Art in 2001.
Wiley has been popular in the contemporary art world for many years.
The New York-based artist is known for his massive canvases that showcase contemporary African Americans in positions of power and strength.