Paint it black

Portraitist Kehinde Wiley temporarily sets up shop in Africa.

Idris Ndiayesa

Photographs: Courtesy Kehinde Wiley Studio

Like the hero of a children’s story, painter Kehinde Wiley grew up as one of six siblings raised with more love than money by a single mom who was an antiques dealer in South Central Los Angeles. His father, who works in architecture, was from Nigeria, and had left Wiley’s mom before he was born. At age 20, Wiley, then studying art in San Francisco, set out for that country’s largest city, Lagos, to find his dad—which he did, remarkably, by asking around. After about a month in Africa, Wiley returned to the U.S., where he started a series of portraits based on his father.

Since then, likenesses have made Wiley his name. The artist, 31, starts with a striking formula, juxtaposing elements from 18th- and 19th-century portraiture—billowing clouds, shining swords—with the figures of young black men in jeans and athletic jerseys. Currently, his work is installed in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum and can be seen in a group survey, “Recognize!,” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. And on Wednesday 16 at Studio Museum in Harlem, Wiley opens “The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar,” a new series he produced in temporary studios in Lagos, and Dakar, Senegal. In these canvases, Wiley placed local subjects against African textiles. “It’s taking what he does and moving,” explains the Studio Museum’s director, Thelma Golden (the subject of one of Wiley’s few renderings of women, where she’s limned Queen Elizabeth I), adding that this new work signals the artist is entering his “early midcareer.”

That career has been going great guns since the spring of 2001, when Wiley, who had just earned his M.F.A. from Yale, moved to New York to participate in the Studio Museum’s residency program. Over the rest of that year, he began to choose his subjects from what he has called the “runway” of 125th Street. By granting them the ceremonial trappings of the historically rich and famous, he cast himself as the court painter of urban life. In 2005, that role became more literal when VH1 tapped him to immortalize such members of hip-hop royalty as LL Cool J, Ice-T and Biggie Smalls for an campaign advertising that year’s VH1 Hip-Hop Honors show. Wiley recalls that painting celebrities turned out to be more about “negotiating a brand” than anointing a subject. “Ice-T said, ‘If anyone deserves to be Napoleon, it’s me.’ So I said ‘Okay… here we go.’ ” Accordingly, the rapper and Law & Order SVU star appears in a pastiche of Ingres’s 1806 coronation portrait of the French emperor, complete with golden throne and scepters.

Dogon Couple

Photographs: Courtesy Kehinde Wiley Studio

The disadvantage of Wiley’s taking what he does and moving abroad is a lessening of the power-chord appeal of images like that. And indeed, the new paintings pull in everyday African sitters from the streets and poses them like the postcolonial statues that dot Lagos and Dakar.

The resulting works are less familiar as icons than the images of rap stars, but they hardly stint on Wiley’s signature attention to brilliant fabrics and patterns. He envisions painting in six countries on three continents, making “The World Stage” into its own version of “Family of Man.”

The work should find eager buyers. Although the artist worries out loud that his boisterous openings turn off white viewers (“too much emotion, too many uneducated black people in the room”), his most loyal coterie of collectors are young hedge-fund guys, according to someone close to his career. Yet they would be hard-pressed to commission portraits from him. “It’s not on the menu,” Wiley says, indicating that he plans to stick to his usual subjects.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST Kehinde Wiley makes the world his stage

Still there have been exceptions of sorts. “I’ve jokingly painted some of my favorite collectors as black men,” the artist notes, “so there’s a really great portrait of David LaChapelle, the photographer—my version of him—that’s in his collection.”

Whether or not “The World Stage” keeps him on the road, Wiley has held on to his studio in Brooklyn and maintains his role as a court painter, with key collaborators: “I got a call from Michael Jackson the other day, and he wants a portrait.” What about doing the inauguration of President Obama? Wiley admits it’s the job he was born for: “I’d love, love, love to do his official presidential portrait. I’m actively campaigning.”

“The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar” is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, through Oct 26.