Last year, Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley, who painted the official portrait of Barack Obama in 2017, went scouting for subjects on the streets of Dalston.
He was looking for real people for a series of portraits celebrating east London women of colour. The artworks are now part of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Wiley’s exhibition at the William Morris Gallery. ‘We just stopped people in the street,’ explains Rowan Bain, senior curator at the gallery. ‘It was everyday people going about their business.’ Wiley then invited the women to visit a makeshift studio in a nearby church hall. ‘It was amazing to see how Kehinde was able to transform them and give them confidence,’ Bain says. ‘In his work, the subjects are proud. They stand with their heads held high.’
One portrait (above) features Hackney local Kaya, who was on the school run with her daughters Asia-Imani and Gabriella-Esnae. The background is based on one of William Morris’s wallpaper designs, a recurring theme in Wiley’s work: he reimagines them in vivid hues.
Bain says it was interesting watching people’s reactions on the shoot. ‘It was great to see how the children responded to being photographed. Kaya’s two-year-old really got into it,’ she says. ‘It’s unusual to see children portrayed in this way.’
Wiley scouted Kaya because he wanted to represent a modern family in a traditional way. ‘She is a proud young mother posing with her girls in the tradition of family portraiture,’ says Bain, ‘but she has her own individual style which is why Kehinde was drawn to her. The end result is a contemporary view of motherhood and family.’
The show subverts expectations of stuffy portraits. ‘Kehinde plays with the idea of who is worthy of having a monumental portrait,’ says Bain. ‘You may have been to the National Portrait Gallery and seen lots of portraits of dead white men. You may wonder why you’re meant to care. These paintings reflect modern-day London and who is worthy of being celebrated.’
Kehinde Wiley ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is at the William Morris Gallery until May 25.