I was a great admirer of New York artist Kehinde Wiley’s mammoth portraits before he revealed his portrait of Barack Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait gallery in February. His subjects are often urban African-American men, though sometimes Brazilian or African, plucked from the street in model-scout style. They sit for their portrait with directions to come as they are, dressing completely as themselves. Wiley may have already toured great museums, such as the Louvre, to gain inspiration for how he wants to pose them in the style of the great classical masterpieces. What emerges is a great modern work of urban Americana cum early European aristocracy that elevates his subjects to the a status once reserved for the ultra wealthy and prestigious.
These are powerful juxtapositions on canvas, but a PBS documentary reveals the transformation in his models’ inner worlds as they see how respectfully and truthfully their likeness has been immortalized. It moved me. To see yourself the way your admirer or champion does is such a gift that can only pass between two humans.
Watch The Economy of Grace on PBS here.