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Posted: February 12, 2018

Who is Kehinde Wiley, the artist behind Barack Obama’s presidential portrait?

Former President Barack Obama, right, and Artist Kehinde Wiley, left, unveil Obama's official portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Andrew Harnik/AP
Former President Barack Obama, right, and Artist Kehinde Wiley, left, unveil Obama's official portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

By Fiza Pirani, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


The National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portrait of former President Barack Obama Monday. The artist behind the image, Kehinde Wiley, was hand-picked by Obama.

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Here are seven things to know about Kehinde Wiley (pronounced keh-HIN-day WHILE-ey).

He’s from Los Angeles. 

Wiley was born in 1977 in south central Los Angeles to a Nigerian father and African-American mother, but didn’t grow up with his father at home. At the age of 20, however, he traveled to Nigeria to find him. 

“After several weeks in Lagos, he found his dad, who welcomed him. But — like any Telemachus or Luke Skywalker — Wiley, who was born in Los Angeles and lives in Brooklyn, was also looking for a sense of belonging, and his homecoming was not as seamless as he had dreamed,” the New Yorker reported in 2008. “Still, the place has a pull on him. In December, he attended his half sister’s wedding, in the city of Uyo. He brought his mother, who had not seen his father in thirty years.” 

Wiley currently lives in Brooklyn.

Wiley and Amy Sherald are the first African-Americans to be commissioned to paint official portraits.

Hand-picked by the Obamas, Wiley and Sherald are the first-ever African-Americans to be commissioned by the gallery to paint the official portraits. The Obamas looked at the portfolios of more than two dozen artists before deciding on Wiley and Sherald. 

“Both (painters) have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement last year.

“This is our ability to say: ‘I matter. I was here,’” Wiley said at the portrait unveiling Monday. “To be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States... It doesn’t get any better than that.”

According to CNN, Wiley apparently took thousands of photographs of Obama to create his portrait.

There are always two sets of portraits created, one for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the other for inside the White House.

Wiley is best known for creating naturalistic paintings featuring African-Americans in heroic poses.

Wiley is known for taking the saints, prophets and heroes of Old Master paintings and replacing them with black men and women dressed in hip-hop or African attire.

“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.

Portrait of Natasha Zamor, 2015 Oil on canvas 72 x 60 in

A post shared by Kehinde Wiley (@kehindewiley) on

“I know how young black men are seen,” Wiley said in an interview with The New York Times in 2015. “They’re boys, scared little boys oftentimes. I was one of them. I was completely afraid of the Los Angeles Police Department.”

Wiley is known for painting iconic music artists.

While most of Wiley’s paintings are of people he stumbles upon in his travels, he’s painted his fair share of famous icons, including Michael Jackson, LL Cool J, Biggie and many more. 

He’s painted Ice T channeling Napoleon, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as a 17th century Dutch civic guard company.

He started art school at age 11.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Wiley began taking art classes at a conservatory at California State University, and soon after, he started a six-week art program outside Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in Russia.

After graduating from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Wiley attended the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2001, he earned a Master of Fine Arts at Yale University’s School of Art.

He won the National Medal of Arts.

Wiley was awarded the 2014 National Medal of Arts, an honor presented by former President Barack Obama himself. It is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the federal government.

To this day, Wiley remains one of the most sought-after painters in America.

He is a member of the LGBTQ community.

In an interview with The New York Times, Wiley expressed that his sexuality is complex, and that he identifies as a gay man.

“My sexuality is not black and white,” Wiley said. “I’m a gay man who has occasionally drifted. I am not bi. I’ve had perfectly pleasant romances with women, but they weren’t sustainable. My passion wasn’t there. I would always be looking at guys.”

He defies the categorization in his art as well, which features a fusion of art styles and intersecting lines of sexuality, class, gender and race.

Learn more about Wiley and his iconic art at

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