The St. Louis Art Museum’s predominantly White portraiture largely ignores the African Americans that make up nearly half of the River City’s population. That disconnect inspired Kehinde Wiley, the Black artist who famously painted former President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery, to bring the area’s Black residents to the museum’s walls. The resulting exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis, is now on display through February 10.
“Saint Louis,” like much of Wiley’s work, envisions Black subjects in the stately portrait styles that classical European and American artists typically reserved for White elites.
“The great heroic, often White, male hero dominates the picture plane and becomes larger than life, historic and significant,” Wiley told The Guardian. “The kind of inside-outside nature of museum culture can be alienating, and St. Louis has one of the best American collections of classical works, so I wanted to use the poses from these paintings for potential sitters from the community.”
Wiley traveled to areas like Ferguson to find subjects for the 11 portraits in the show. He then photographed them and went back to his New York City studio to paint from the ones he found most compelling. This process allows him to create portraits that confront the racism embedded in U.S. mythology.
“When you think of America itself and its own narratives, there are inspiring narratives and the notion of American exceptionalism,” Wiley says. “It’s the place where the world looks to for the best of human aspirations. That narrative is highly under question at this moment.”