Painter Kehinde Wiley The phrase "young, gifted and black" reverberated out of the Civil Rights movement -- News & Notes begins a series of profiles of a new generation to watch with a look at artist Kehinde Wiley.
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Painter Kehinde Wiley

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Painter Kehinde Wiley

Painter Kehinde Wiley

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ED GORDON, host:

It was the famous playwright Lorraine Hansberry who coined the phrase `young, gifted and black.' Speaking to a group of young writers in 1964, Hansberry said this.

Ms. LORRAINE HANSBERRY (Playwright): Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted, in such times it is doubly so, doubly dynamic to be young, gifted and black.

GORDON: The phrase `to be young, gifted and black' reverberated out of the civil rights movement and inspired a song by the great Nina Simone.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. NINA SIMONE and Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) Young, gifted and black.

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Oh, what a lovely, precious dream...

Ms. SIMONE and Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) ...to be young, gifted and black.

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Open your heart to what I mean.

GORDON: The song served as a kind of black national anthem in those days. We've decided to use the phrase as a theme to spotlight people to watch, people we call YGB. NPR's Roy Hurst has the first story of a young man making waves in the visual arts.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. SIMONE and Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) Young, gifted and black, and that's a fact.

Mr. KEHINDE WILEY (Painter): My name is Kehinde Wiley. I'm a painter.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. SIMONE and Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) You are young, gifted and black,

ROY HURST reporting:

Kehinde Wiley is not just any painter. At 28, he's one of the top newcomers on the New York art scene. Get an appointment to visit his Greenwich Village studio and his administrative assistant buzzes you up to the sound of Snoop Dogg. You'll probably have to make your way around the two or three artisans working feverishly on the large canvases spread along the wall. There's another solo exhibition to get ready for, and when you've got it like Kehinde Wiley has it right now, you don't have to paint your pictures by yourself. And the pictures: very large portraits of young black men.

Mr. WILEY: My basic vision is the embracing of the black male body in public space, to create paintings that picture young black males in ways that haven't been seen in art historically, in this country or in the world, really.

HURST: To put it another way, Wiley's thing is to do portraits of everyday black men in their best Fubu attire or Nike or whatever it is they prefer. And he paints them floating over intricate, colorful patterns. Many strike poses reminiscent of the great paintings of noblemen from the European Renaissance.

Mr. WILEY: The excitement has to do with the newness surrounding having someone that's usually cast as a negative be cast as a positive in a way that's not necessarily...

HURST: Wiley is smeared with paint. He's sitting in a lounge chair at the center of the room. He's dark brown, stocky, with a round face and short-cropped nappy hair.

Mr. WILEY: I'll go to urban areas throughout the United States, be it Los Angeles, be it Harlem, Detroit, and I'll approach complete strangers and ask them to go through my collection of art history paintings. And when they go through the books, they figure out which paintings mean the most to them, and I re-create those paintings in my own way.

Mr. TUMELO MOSAKA (Curator, Brooklyn Museum): On one level, he's really critiquing the history of painting, which is, I think, amazing for somebody as young as he is.

HURST: Tumelo Mosaka is a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, where Wiley recently had a solo exhibition.

Mr. MOSAKA: But at the same time I think he wants people to also be seduced by the beauty of the paintings. So you'll find that the paintings are really meticulously painted, the colors are really bright. And initially what drew me to the works was the monumental scale, you know, because it's so unusual to see black males painted on the scale that Kehinde Wiley portrays them as.

Mr. WILEY: Number one, I just love making big pictures. There's something really athletic and pleasing about that. But then also the history of Western art is the history of powerful white men depicting their glories in very large, big ways. Size matters in the sense that it's associated with the masculineness. And in my work there is a critique of that. It's a great way to play with the heroic as it relates to the black male, and it's a way of playing with the language of religious and history painting.

HURST: Wiley is from South Central Los Angeles. He was raised by a single mother, a linguist with a love for the arts.

Mr. WILEY: Yeah, she saw art as another language. And I remember going through museums with her and looking at all the great paintings and really thinking, you know, `This is something that's possible.' And I think that was really unique in that regard. I don't remember too many of my friends in the neighborhood or any of my classmates who were spending their weekends in museums. But you know, it was something that I grew a taste for.

HURST: Now Kehinde Wiley can find a Kehinde Wiley at a major museum, namely the Brooklyn Museum.

Mr. MOSAKA: Very rare. I mean, for a young African-American artist to be given a museum exhibition is very, very rare.

HURST: Again, Brooklyn Museum curator Tumelo Mosaka.

Mr. MOSAKA: And the show was very successful. I think we had a very good response from not only African-American audience, but from just general audience that comes to a museum.

HURST: And how does Kehinde Wiley feel about all the attention he's getting? He says he's cautious about it.

Mr. WILEY: The question to myself is: How can I constantly challenge myself as a painter as opposed to satisfying the public with any given product?

HURST: Still, Wiley seems more than inspired by the reactions provoked by this current work of colorful, larger-than-life black men.

Mr. WILEY: You'll get people responding to this as though they've been presented with something menacing or something intimidating. Others are really delighted that they see something familiar, warm. And others are sort of appalled that their history is being brutalized by someone who has a sort of contested relationship to it. In the end, I think it's all of that. I think that the strength of any artist is to create a level of complexity that allows for its viability throughout time.

HURST: Roy Hurst, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. SIMONE and Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) Young, gifted and black.

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Oh, what a lovely...

GORDON: You can view some of the works of Kehinde Wiley at our Web site at npr.org.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. SIMONE and Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) ...to be young, gifted and black.

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Open your heart to what I mean.

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