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Exploring Kehinde Wiley's Art With Kids

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"Black Is Beautiful" by Sherihan Abdulaziz - COURTESY OF EMILY JACOBS
  • courtesy of emily jacobs
  • "Black Is Beautiful" by Sherihan Abdulaziz

During the past few months, many of us have isolated ourselves due to the coronavirus — working remotely and engaging with friends and family through Zoom instead of in-person visits. As a result, we have felt our worlds shrink. With so much art and literature accessible online, though, opportunities still exist for children and caregivers alike to learn, find inspiration and express themselves creatively.

A group of Winooski Middle School students did just that during my recent summer art class online, called "The Portrait Studio." Students convened over Zoom for this virtual learning experience, which centered on the artwork of Kehinde (pronounced keh-HIN-day) Wiley — one of America's most prominent contemporary portrait artists. Wiley is best known for his larger-than-life paintings celebrating Black and brown bodies and personalities within the context of the Western art world, which has historically underrepresented, demeaned or entirely excluded people of color.

Nadine Ikizakubuntu with "Different Flowers From the Same Garden" - COURTESY OF EMILY JACOBS
  • courtesy of emily jacobs
  • Nadine Ikizakubuntu with "Different Flowers From the Same Garden"

Most historic portraits in the Western art tradition feature white, male aristocrats and have either omitted people of color or relegated them to the shadows and peripheries, often in servile positions. Sadly, these historic artworks reflect an accurate and systematic marginalization and oppression of people of color in our society. Wiley — himself a queer African American man — seeks to critique and counteract this oppressive history by centering and celebrating Black and brown beauty and strength in his large-scale portraits.

Wiley grounds elements of his portraits in the trappings of traditional European portraiture — a subject in a powerful stance making eye contact with the viewer; an ornate floral motif in the background; a sense of opulence — but centers Black, Latinx and Indigenous individuals and families dressed in their preferred styles of clothing. He often infuses his color palettes with vivid or neon colors. In doing this, Wiley subverts tradition and critiques the historic marginalization of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) individuals in art history, and in society as a whole.

While Wiley has painted well-known political and pop-culture figures — including president Barack Obama, the Notorious B.I.G., Salt-N-Pepa and Spike Lee — the majority of his portrait subjects are "everyday" individuals he has encountered on the streets of cities, towns and villages around the globe, from Harlem to Mumbai, Senegal to Rio de Janeiro.

In my virtual Portrait Studio class, students met on Zoom to study and discuss the work of Wiley, as well as the history and ideals in which his art is grounded. Each student then created their own large-scale portrait inspired by Wiley's artwork, featuring a BIPOC individual — whether themselves, a friend or a celebrity they admire.

Fourteen-year-old Sherihan Abdulaziz shared her thoughts on the importance of including individuals of all races and cultures in art "so that people of all colors feel included and welcome."

Carol Duong with "Thorns" - COURTESY OF EMILY JACOBS
  • courtesy of emily jacobs
  • Carol Duong with "Thorns"

Nadine Ikizakubuntu, also 14, commented on the how seeing oneself represented or reflected in art "can help people to feel seen and loved and important." Nadine's Wiley-inspired portrait, titled "Different Flowers From the Same Garden," depicts herself in a favorite outfit, holding in her arms the baby sister of a close friend.

The visual arts can be an effective and inspiring conduit not only for self-expression but for expanding one's worldview and better understanding experiences beyond our own. Having taught visual arts to students ranging from ages 4 to 14 for nearly a decade, I have seen that even very young children are able to find inspiration in art that reflects experiences outside of their own; empathize with the sentiments that art conveys; and reinterpret an advanced artistic style in their own unique way.

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Gather Your Materials

While my summer art students primarily used colored pencils for this project, crayons or markers would also work well. Choose a medium that will allow your child to draw their subject's facial features in some detail. Watercolor paint can make filling in the background spaces much faster.

Make sure you have appropriate colors to be able to accommodate a wide range of skin tones.

If you're looking for an alternative to drawing, you and your child can create your own Wiley-inspired portraits through the art of collage, by cutting figures out of magazines or newspapers and gluing them onto your own drawn floral backgrounds or patterned art paper.

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