Painting Black Existence Into History

[upbeat music]Painting is about light.It’s about the way that we choose to cast lighton one thing, or to allow that to rest in darkness.By casting light on certain things,I choose to say yes to those stories.And I think that allows meas a painter to participate in the world around mebut also to contribute to the

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[upbeat music]

Painting is about light.

It’s about the way that we choose to cast light

on one thing, or to allow that to rest in darkness.

By casting light on certain things,

I choose to say yes to those stories.

And I think that allows me

as a painter to participate in the world around me

but also to contribute to the broader evolution of culture.

[upbeat music]

My name is Kehinde Wiley, I’m an artist.

I grew up in South Central Los Angeles.

You know, we grew up with next

to nothing in terms of resources, economic resources

but I had an immense amount of support from my mom

and from my siblings and from the whole community.

As a young kid, looking at old historical paintings,

I wonder why are they wearing those powdered wigs

and those pearls?

What’s up with all the lap dogs?

[upbeat music]

I grew a fascination and a curiosity

about the language of power,

the language of respect and dignity.

I loved Goya.

I loved Rubens.

I loved Velázquez

but I also love Kerry James Marshall, Charles White.

I’d look at that and I’d try to copy it.

I’d put myself in it.

[upbeat music]

My name is Amy Sherald,

I am an American painter from Columbus, Georgia.

I was born interested in art.

I recognize that I wanted to be an artist at an early age.

I didn’t understand what that meant

but I knew that I was drawn to people

that expressed themselves differently than the kind

of conservative way that people were in the south.

I had one moment in elementary school,

my art teacher took us to see the work

of an artist named Bo Bartlett.

The work was an image of a Black man standing

in a yard with his wife and son.

And I had never seen that before.

I had never seen contemporary work before.

So I had an emotional response to it.

I knew in that moment

that I wanted to make paintings of people.

I wanted them to be big paintings

of people like large scale.

And I wanted them to tell stories.

I’ve always looked and studied American realist.

And so I felt

like that was where these narratives that I create belong

because I’m painting American people.

I did one painting where I found this young woman.

She was somebody that was living outside of the box.

And I realized in that moment

that that’s the kind of person that I’m looking for.

These are the people that need to be represented

in art history.

And these are the people that need to be on the walls

of museum institutions.

And these are the people that need to look at something

and find their humanity inside of that

because it’s impossible to find it anywhere else sometimes.

One of my first bodies of work was called passing posing.

It was about the ways

that Black men are pictured and still images.

In this case, I was dealing with the mugshot.

The mugshot is about the way that you have no right

to position your body this way,

that decision is taken from you.

So much of the great 18th and 19th century portraiture,

we see people who have absolute autonomy.

I’m going to show you myself

but also show you the land behind me, cattle, my family,

all seen as possessions.

Passing posing was about destroying

that relationship of the body and space.

Instead, what we’re creating are these voids,

these fields of color,

and then populating them with botanicals

with the decorative things that have been associated

with the irrational, the feminine

the background becomes central metaphor.

The background in the portrait

of president Obama was central

because it centers the background as his history.

There’s flowers from Kenya, flowers from Hawaii

the state flower of Illinois.

I wanted to create a painting that mirrored the complexity

of the president and the botanicals point to all

of those different places, physically, that he came of age.

[Announcer] Miss Amy Sherald.

The most challenging thing about painting

the first lady portrait was just thinking about

the unveiling and like what people were gonna think

and knowing that you cannot please the whole world.

People would ask me,

like have you ever imagined yourself doing this?

And I was like, No, why would I?

Kehinde painted Michael Jackson.

So after you paint Michael Jackson, you pretty much,

you’re like I can paint anybody I want to.

So like being chosen to paint her never crossed my mind.

Not one single time, until it happened.

Once I realized it was an opportunity,

I did hone in on her because she is somebody

who I knew I could represent well.

I think I make art for that person inside

of me that wants to be approved.

But also that person inside of me

that wants to shake up the world.

So there’s two different things going on.

There’s the desire for acceptability.

And then there’s the desire for revolution.

I’m carrying both paint and pitch fork.

Monuments are about domination.

They’re about dominating our understanding

of the present tense in order to look at the past

and say this mattered.

What I want to do is to create images

that say people who happen to look like me matter.

[upbeat music]

When I got the phone call with the ask

of painting Breonna, I saw it as an opportunity

for me to offer something historically

that we could live with forever.

You know, when Ta-Nehisi asked me to do this, he said,

I know that you can represent her

in a way where she will feel alive.

And that’s what I want for the cover.

I really wanted to make this painting for her mother,

for her sister and for her boyfriend.

Portraiture is about the resistance of death.

But painting is also

about the style of living that you wanna live.

Do you want bright paintings, do you want dull paintings?

I want paintings that shine.

This work is definitely about the resistance of decay

but I think it’s leading by example.

It’s not saying no to something, it’s saying yes to itself.

The question that I’ve been asked often,

is will you ever paint anybody other than Black people?

And my answer is no I won’t.

‘Cause the image of whiteness

has been perpetuated beautifully throughout history.

So like you really don’t need my help.

Like I’m here to paint my own ideal

and to represent that in the world.

And if I can’t do that, then something is deeply wrong.

Like, and the story is like

you should look at a history book

and then see if you still want to ask me that question.

‘Cause the problem is you recognize an absence of yourself

but you don’t recognize the absence of me.

[upbeat music]

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