Text by Thessaly La Force.
“I wanted beautiful women,” says the 37-year-old artist Kehinde Wiley. It was the summer of 2011, and Wiley — known primarily for his ornate, classical-style portraits of young black men — was scouting the streets of Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens for new subjects. Female subjects, for his first formal attempt at painting women. “I knew that I wanted to cast a broad net and not go within the fashion-world-model look. I wanted women who had a sense of self-possession and a kind of haughtiness that you can just pick up on.” With his team of two or three plus a camera crew (the project was filmed for a PBS documentary called Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace), he took scouting snapshots on the street, eventually whittling his list of subjects down to just seven. Over the next several months, Wiley photographed them, had them fitted for haute-couture gowns designed by Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, then painted them large-scale, in works modeled after French and British portraits from the 18th and 19th centuries (pictured this page). A number of them will be on display at a retrospective of Wiley’s work opening February 20 at the Brooklyn Museum, in what will likely be one of the big exhibitions of the winter.
Here, in a portfolio of original photographs for New York, Wiley updates those paintings — six of the same women, styled in this season’s gowns from the Row, Chloé, Erdem, Rodarte, and others and staged, as his paintings are, to seem both out of time and sumptuously of the moment. He calls the photographs, like the paintings, “intelligent, wasteful acts of spending.” With their exaggerated hair and surreal makeup, and accessorized with jewels, the women look both regal and demure. “What we wanted to do was to play up the real world within the language of glamour,” Wiley says. “I wanted to have a reprise of that moment, to go back to this idea of fashion and art having something in common, the idea that fashion could change the perception of an individual.”
The women hail from a variety of backgrounds. Ena Johnson, 25, is studying for her nursing degree. Candice Stevens, 30, works for the Department of Correction. Shantavia Beale, 23, is a mother of two. But Wiley isn’t interested in turning anyone into a Cinderella story. “He portrayed us in a beautiful way without whitewashing our representation,” recalls Johnson of the first time she saw Wiley’s paintings. “He let little details about us shine through, things that are cultural — that are human. In the painting of Treisha, he painted on her nail designs.” Khalidiah Asante, 28 and an art teacher, says of her experience: “I have always been self-conscious about my feet. I’m a dancer, I have calluses underneath my feet that I’d never want to get rid of, because I need them. But when I was younger I wasn’t really happy or confident about that, but the fact that he got every detail of my foot, every wrinkle — God, that is wonderful — the part I really hate about my body, I was like, Wow, this is gorgeous.”
“We need to see more positive representations of ourselves,” Johnson says. “There’s too much negative. When I was in the Chelsea gallery, my daughter pointed me out, and that was an experience that was so amazing, to be seen in that light.”
Styling by Rebecca Ramsey; makeup by Deja Smith for DD-Pro using Makeup Forever; hair by Dee Trannybear for DD-Pro using Redken.
*This article appears in the February 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.BEGIN SLIDESHOW
Most Viewed Stories
Royal Aides Are Reportedly Freaking Out About Meghan Markle
Ivanka Trump Claims She Didn’t Know the Rules About Personal Emails
The Suburban Mom Thinking About Cheating on Her Husband
Chris Watts Was Sentenced in Murder of His Wife and Daughters. Here’s What to Know
What We Know About Michael Avenatti’s Arrest for Domestic Violence
The Truth Behind True Thompson’s Birth
Princess Beatrice Has a Very Rich New Boyfriend
Love Couldn’t Save Me From Loneliness
This Perfume Smells Like Luck and Good Mornings
The Cut’s Latest Fashion FeaturesCiara's Wedding Dress Was Too Big for the Chapel
To be fair, it was a 13 foot-long dress.You and Rihanna Will Both Want to Invest in Dior’s New Bag
It's got something for everyone.Polo Shirts Have Turned Their Back on Ryan Lochte
Along with his other major sponsors.Ryan Lochte Will No Longer Be Paid to Wear Tiny Bathing Suits
Speedo remains committed to transparency.Laura Brown Is the New Editor-in-Chief of InStyle
After 11 years at Harper’s Bazaar.Tyra Banks Is Going to Teach a Class on Smizing at Stanford
"If I see somebody not paying attention, I’m gonna call on them."This Floating Pier Is the Most Zen Installation Ever
Walking on water in Italy.Nation Is Appalled by Matt Lauer’s Nude Ankles During Ryan Lochte Interview
What’s the opposite of “Jeah”?8 People at the Life of Pablo Pop-up Explain Why Kanye West Is a God
"I mean, Kanye West is just Kanye West. There's not more or less you can say about Kanye West. He's just Mr. West!"A T-shirt Is Enough
Simplicity, versatility, and cool. What more could you want?
She took a perfect pencil dive off a 30-foot yacht.American Apparel Is Being Sued by Former Workers
As the company considers putting itself up for sale.A Gendered History of the Tailored Suit
From Marlon Brando to Coco Chanel.How Zendaya Developed Such Great Style at the Young Age of 19
The star's best looks from Disney to now.Proof That If You’re Chic Enough, a Little Federal Investigation Doesn’t Matter
Is this the best they could do?5,300-Year-Old Mummified Iceman Probably Would’ve Been a Street-Style Star
He had several different looks and was “pretty picky.”J.Crew Has Identified 226 Shades of Pink
Even more than there are shades of gray.Gigi and Bella Hadid Merch Is Now Somehow a Thing That Is Happening
Today in Hadidiana.Gird Your Loins for the Return of Yeezy to New York Fashion Week
The season approaches.This Indie Brand Had a Great Response to Ivanka Trump
When she bought one of their cuffs, they donated the proceeds to the Clinton campaign.