Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara (81), standing, sword in hand, proudly looking at the spectator; Paul Kagame (65), his Rwandan counterpart -- in power since 1994 -- also standing in his office; Denis Sassou-Nguesso (79) -- who has almost 40 years at the head of the People's Republic of Congo -- arms crossed in a flowery setting, echoing African loincloths...
These monumental and vitaminized paintings are part of the ten paintings exhibited at the Quai Branly (until January 14, 2024), in an exhibition imagined in collaboration with the Galerie Templon in Paris.
The painting "Portrait of Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of Congo" by American artist Kehinde Wiley, exhibited at the Musée du Quai Branly, September 25, 2023 in Paris © JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP
The starting point? The portrait of former US President Barack Obama, which was an official commission, made by the 46-year-old African-American artist.
"Even before making his portrait, seeing him introduce himself, I said to myself: +It's impossible for him to become president because of his skin color+ ... I was wrong (laughs)," he told AFP.
- President(s) and anonymous -
"It led me to a question: Where are the black presidents? One thing led to another, I started to look at Africa," continues the man who divides his time between New York and West Africa.
Born in 1977 in Los Angeles (California), he is the son of an African-American woman and a Nigerian, whom he hardly knew. If he dreams of painting -- and being a portraitist -- , he starts studying art while following, in parallel... cooking classes.
A painting by American artist Kehinde Wiley exhibited at the Musée du Quai Branly, September 25, 2023 in Paris © JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP
"I wasn't sure I could make a career as an artist. There was something of the order of the chimera", he recalls, saying "to have devoted all (his) life to this dream".
During his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute and then at Yale University, Kehinde Wiley realized one thing: the representation of blacks in art confined them to the functions of slaves or servants.
He prefers to paint black men in positions of power, inspired by paintings representing kings, emperors and politicians.
His style is grandiloquent, sometimes bordering on kitsch, almost photographic in detail and intensity.
The painting "Portrait of Olusegun Abasanjo, former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria" by American artist Kehinde Wiley, exhibited at the Musée du Quai Branly, September 25, 2023 in Paris © JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP
It is his portrait of the 44th American president that brings him notoriety, even if his work is dotted with anonymous African-Americans, whom he paints in an almost giant way.
For a long time, the African continent remained a distant idea at home. An idea, became, a few years ago, a vast territory that he inhabits part of the year.
"I like to go to Senegal and Nigeria to get away from the hypocrisies of America and to escape the obsession with skin color," he said, saying that "there is still a lot of work to be done for social and racial justice" in his country.
In Africa, "each country has its own challenges even if I think there are also great opportunities and so many talents," he said.
Paintings by American artist Kehinde Wiley exhibited at the Musée du Quai Branly, September 25, 2023 in Paris © JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP
His project on African heads of state does not represent a break with his work, but the extension of it: "Some will say: +Here, Kehinde Wiley paints dictators+...".
And to explain that he wanted to "start a conversation with these leaders", whom he approached and met. Not official paintings, it is "a bizarre artistic performance", he claims.
Performance that explores the staging of power rarely shown in Western painting. Will he convince? "The audience always reacts to authenticity. When something is true and profound, we cannot turn away from it. We'll see."
© 2023 AFP