A painting by Kehinde Wiley titled "Officer of the Hussars." It features a black male with a sword riding on a white horse.

“Officer of the Hussars” by Kehinde Wiley.
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr Creative Commons.

After former President Barack Obama’s official portrait was released Feb. 12, 2018, rumors surfaced that New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley had previously painted black women decapitating white women. While these rumors might sound outlandish at first, Snopes has proven them to be true.

What isn’t true, though, is the racist connotations associated with the paintings.

By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth, and prestige to the subject matter drawn from the urban fabric, the subjects and stylistic references for his paintings are juxtaposed inversions of each other, forcing ambiguity and provocative perplexity to pervade his imagery. Like most paintings, the meaning is much more deeper than what meets the eye.

The two paintings everyone’s whispering about in particular are from Wiley’s collection titled, “An Economy of Grace,” which depicts African-American women cast from New York in handmade couture gowns. The women recreate poses based on paintings by Jacques-Louis David, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Singer Sargent, to name a few.

“The resulting paintings to be shown in ‘An Economy of Grace’ are a celebration of black women, creating a rightful place for them within art history, which has to date been an almost exclusively white domain,” Wiley explained on his website.

Specifically, the two portraits of a black woman holding a white woman’s head were modern takes based on the biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes, according to Snopes. Wiley’s paintings were no cause for alarm and were well-regarded before the Obama portrait was released. In fact, only two of Wiley’s numerous paintings, the infamous beheading depictions, have sparked any controversy at all.

Some esteemed figures, such as art critic Walter Robinson, have come out in defense of Wiley’s work. However, that hasn’t done much to curb the negative attention he’s getting from right-wing media outlets. Whether he likes it or not, Wiley is now front-and-center of a heated racial debate.