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Kehinde Wiley is an African-American portrait artist most known for painting the official Presidential portrait of President Barack Obama. But, Wiley has a huge portfolio of work outside of the Obama portrait.
Many of Wiley’s paintings feature elements, poses and symbols from historical art but with some key differences. The models in Wiley’s portraits are everyday Black Americans who Wiley actually finds walking down the street, this is quite the contrast from the wealthy white nobles portrayed in the works of many historical European artists. The other striking element in Wiley’s work is his use of bright vibrant colors and backgrounds, often embellished with florals and other natural elements.
I love Wiley’s work and I was so excited to introduce the kids to his work. This lesson is great for Black History Month, Presidents Week, Election Week or even as an art lesson for a unit on flowers!
To start our lesson, we watched a brief video from the Detroit Institute of Arts which houses one of Wiley’s pieces, “Officer of the Hussars.” The video was a great introduction to Wiley’s work. We paused it often to discuss and examine the similarities and differences between Wiley’s work and the work of historical European artists. The video also provided an introduction to talking about symbolism in art. We learned that the man in Wiley’s painting for example, has a purple coat since purple is a color that symbolizes nobility.
Next, we looked at some other Presidential portraits including; George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George W. Bush. We observed each of the paintings and noted what was similar about all of the portraits. We noticed the use of muted colors and what the backgrounds looked like.
Then we looked at Barack Obama’s portrait and contrasted it with the other portraits. We noticed how colorful the Obama portrait is compared to the others. (More resources for discussion here. ) My son also noted that the other presidents all had white skin but that in Barack Obama’s portrait, he has darker skin. This enabled us to revisit our conversations about race, racism, similarities and differences and I explained how Barack Obama was our country’s first Black president (and now Kamala Harris is our first Black Vice President, and first woman!)
We then moved on to our art project! A Kehinde Wiley inspired self portrait and collage using symbolism.
2 pieces of Watercolor Paper
Magazines, newspapers or catalogues
1. To begin, since Wiley is known for his floral backgrounds, encourage your child to paint a background that is colorful. Have them think of their favorite flowers or plants.
2. Once the painting is finished, set aside to dry.
3. Take a photo of your child posing sitting in a chair. (I didn’t instruct Mr. J to make this classic President Obama expression but he did and I love it.)
4. Print out the picture or display it on a tablet in front of your child so he or she may look at it while drawing.
5. Starting with their eyes, instruct them to sketch a portrait of themselves.
6. Let your child paint the picture however they like!
7. Set aside to dry.
8. Once dry cut out the self portrait and paste it to the middle of the floral background.
9. Remind your child about how Wiley uses symbolism in his paintings. Ask your child what imagery or symbols they could use to represent themselves. Some things to think about are favorite colors, their age, numbers, favorite activities, or animals. Now have your child glue on stickers, letters or other pictures or objects to represent themselves onto their picture. Talk about as you go!
Pro Tip: I encourage you to make this project alongside your child! You don’t have to be a master level artist! Have fun with it. Watching you create alongside your child will help give them confidence to try!
I love Mr. J’s painting! He used his initials, the number of 5 because he’s 5 years old, dinosaur and volcano stamps and a blue feather as symbols to represent himself.