Renowned for his grandiose portraits of Black people in regal poses, Kehinde Wiley reigns as a luminary in the realm of contemporary art, transcending boundaries and challenging conventional notions of representation. Born in 1977 in Los Angeles and raised in South Central, Wiley studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and earned his MFA from Yale University. His meteoric rise since has been fueled by a fervent desire to dismantle the dominant narrative of Western art.
Wiley’s works, which often feature grandiose, Baroque-style backgrounds, challenge the conventional depictions of power and beauty in portraiture by inserting people of color into spaces previously reserved for white aristocrats. His subjects, often drawn from the streets of Harlem and Brooklyn, are portrayed with a majestic air, dressed in contemporary clothing but set against backgrounds inspired by the Old Masters.
Wiley’s contributions to contemporary art have earned him numerous accolades, including a MacArthur “genius” grant and a commission to paint the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. In 2018, he unveiled a monumental bronze sculpture of a young Black man on horseback in Times Square, which drew attention to the underrepresented Black experience in public monuments.
In a reading list for NY-based bookstore One Grand, Kehinde recommended ten works that challenge our notions of race, space, power, and love. From James Baldwin to Susan Sontag, explore his recommendations below.
Kehinde Wiley’s Reading List
“Giovanni’s Room is one of my all-time favorites by James Baldwin, a master of deconstructing the American character and social temperature during an era in which novels that explored race and queer love were few and far between, at best.” -KW
The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah
“Why did Chinese foot binding end? Or the western pistol duel, for that matter? The Honor Code takes a stab at this history, revealing the importance of honor as an agent for major social and political change — a salient point to make in this morally fraught time of rapid transformation.” -KW
“More recently celebrated for his masterpiece A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has created in this lesser-known book a deeply personal view of Jamaican slavery. Set from a decidedly female perspective, The Book of Night Women takes you into domestic spaces, seduces you into understanding the very real conflicts and emotions behind charged and savage sexual encounters between slaves and masters, and dissects the negotiations of power within those relationships.” -KW
“A very slim volume, Regarding the Pain of Others is a quick, yet painful read that allows you to deeply delve into empathy, a commodity that is doubtless lacking in our current national conversation.” -KW
The Queen of Harlem by Brian Keith Jackson
“As Harlem, the perpetual work in progress, continues to change, it’s refreshing to revisit this book by my dear friend Brian Keith Jackson. The Queen of Harlem sets the stage of a neighborhood that was very familiar to me as I left Yale and discovered New York for the first time.” -KW
African Metropolitan Architecture by David Adjaye
“The narrative around contemporary Africa’s cosmopolitan cities, exciting young people, vibrant artists, and rapidly evolving promise is, happily, becoming increasingly familiar to people around the globe. In this amazing book, David Adjaye looks at architectural space across the continent, dividing it into regions defined by climates and cultures, rather than artificially-derived national boundaries. Here the Maghreb, the desert, the Sahel, the forest, the Savanna and grasslands, and the mountains and high fields, are the defining features of how different architectures throughout Africa can be witnessed.” -KW
How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom
“Like artists of all stripes, I have attempted to analyze and justify my practice. The creative life, at its best, elucidates and thrives within pleasure, its absence, its expectation, and its promise. Bloom’s book isn’t a how-to on life, but rather a cold disciplined stare into the machinery of pleasure as it relates to human consciousness.” -KW
White Trash by Nancy Isenberg
“Undergirding so much of the discourse surrounding resentment in America right now is the conversation about race. While the notion of ‘blackness’ is often at the forefront of such discussions, the idea of ‘whiteness’ is frequently left unexamined. In her surprising new book, Isenberg goes into the history of how the ‘white trash’ identity is directly related to social caste and economic realities that are perpetually unacknowledged in American castings of itself, its character and its history. White Trash is at once informative, painful and enlightening in how complex our obsession with social-standing-by-virtue-of-color has evolved.” -KW
Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze
“One of my favorite reads from those fundamental years of art school, I first discovered this book when trying to come to terms with western Enlightenment culture’s broad impact on ideation in artistic practice. So much of Enlightenment thinking is poisoned by prior notions of race that one must ask: Is it ever possible to separate some of our greatest understandings derived from the Enlightenment era from its problematic history? In Race and the Enlightenment, Eze examines foundational writings on race by major Enlightenment figures and lays bare the toxic notions of their time in their own words.” -KW
“Love in the Time of Cholera is not a love story, but more a treatise on the subject of love in all its many forms. Márquez’s brilliant storytelling here is a joy, transforming the mundane realities of a long marriage into moments to be savored and relished. The intimate discoveries and daily bonds of marriage are at once thoroughly human, relatable, as well as spiritually transcendent.” -KW
(via One Grand Books; photo by Tony Powell)
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