Nigerian-born artist, Kehinde Wiley, makes history with Obama’s portrait

Kehinde Wiley Barack Obama Michelle Obama

Former US President, Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle, re-emerged on the public stage on Monday with the unveiling of their portraits at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

The man behind Obama’s portrait is Kehinde Wiley, an American of Nigerian descent best known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African-Americans.

For her portrait, Michelle Obama chose Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald.

“How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” Mr Obama said as he saw his picture for the first time.

“I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow (him) to do what I asked.

“I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”

Brooklyn-based Wiley was one of more than 20 considered to paint the National Gallery portrait of Obama.

After being named as the artist, he became the first African-American to execute an official portrait of a president for the National Portrait Gallery.

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Obama is the first African-American president to have a portrait hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

The 41-year-old artist he took more than 1,000 photos of Obama to prepare for the portrait, according to CNN.

Wiley, who is a Los Angeles native, previously had a series of works featuring hip-hop artistes displayed in the National Gallery.

In 2009, Michael Jackson commissioned a portrait, which wasn’t painted until after the king of pop passed.

Wiley has also painted rappers LL Cool J and Ice-T, along with soccer royalty around the world.

The artist was born to a Nigerian father and an African-American mother in 1977.

While he didn’t grow up with his father, Wiley travelled to meet him in Nigeria when he was 20 years old.

He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 before receiving an MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 2001.

Wiley’s works “quote historical sources and position young black men within the field of power”, according to his website.

His paintings are often based on photographs of young men he sees on the streets of Harlem and South Central Los Angeles, and he has since expanded his inspiration to a “world stage”.

He also takes paintings of saints and heroes of Old Masters and replaces the subjects with black men and women.

“What I choose to do is to take people who happen to look like me – black and brown people all over the world, increasingly – and to allow them to occupy that field of power,” Wiley told CNN.

Famous pieces include Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) and Alios Itzhak (2011).

Though based in New York, Wiley has studios around the world in Beijing and West Africa.