Kehinde Wiley on NFTs, Art Basel and His New Amex Card

Photo: Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for American Express

It’s hard to know where to start when you only have a few minutes with someone like Kehinde Wiley, the legendary artist best known for his 2018 portrait of Barack Obama. We were isolated in the corner of a bar. very dark and very noisy at Miami Beach Edition, a cramped and expensive hotel located on the beach next to Faena. Art Basel has always been a bit crazy, but this year it was seen as a craze, with a jumble of art and fashion parties and NFT “activities” running from dawn to dusk. until four in the morning.

Wiley was quick to get out of the chaos for the interviews and, although looking a little tired, still pleased me with his apparent interest in my questions. He has a full, frugal smile and a wide presence, made even more vibrant with the bright red patterned ensemble he “chosen in Senegal”. Known for his naturalistic paintings of Black subjects in vegetal, bushy settings or with the majestic backdrops typical of the old masters, he was in Basel with the American Express, where he designed design a new version of the company’s exclusive Platinum Card. He spoke to Cut about his collaboration, early influences, and his thoughts on NFT about it all.

How was your time at Art Basel?

Well, I spent the morning looking at art, that would be better. I don’t know – there are competing influences that keep me moving. Some of the jobs I love can come as a bit of a surprise.

What is the surprising effect?

I have been deeply influenced by the conceptual work of Bas Jan Ader. He spent most of his time in California before tragically dying in his 20s attempting to cross the Atlantic in a boat for a project he called for. In Search of Miracles. Years later, I created anything else on that basis. I think he’s more from the California side than the Dutch… Yes, I think he went to the United States and disappeared.

Have you ever seen a work of art that made you stop walking?

Very soon, there was a picture of Kerry James Marshall in the barbershop, and the other was Blue boy. I will tell Blue boy is one – it’s like this social portrait of this kid, it’s not quite an adult, but it’s not a child either, and it’s painted as some sort of future aristocrat. The clothes are too much, the scenery is too much. And that is the kind of power that someone from his social class is expected to exercise. But I didn’t think about that all these years ago. I just think it’s really well drawn, technically.

Blue boy Is it a job doing something that’s not like what you do, but back then the ideas around representation and social commentary weren’t on your mind?

They don’t – I know nothing about the history, about the social impact, about the fact that so much of that art is part of some dark force in our world. But I also love that art. I love the ability for artists to take some colored paint and a feathered stick and make something come to life.

But it still has to be a complicated journey, to realize when you re-imagine these old masters and other Western works there are a lot of unpleasant implications.

There’s a lot there, yes. A lot of what I try to do is go around the world and find random complete strangers and pull their history into these pictures, and use that as part of the background they’re depicted in. describe. I think that’s exactly the point – it’s not someone famous or powerful, it’s just someone preoccupied with their own business trying to get on the train or get to work, and this is the guy Randomly ask them to pose in a picture and the next thing you know, they’re in a museum somewhere. There’s a kind of magic that I think adds meaning to the piece, so it’s not just a pretty picture.

That’s basically what you did for your upcoming show at the National Gallery, correct?

I found the models and took them to the fjords in Norway. I had this idea in mind – just looking at the pictures – but neither of us knew what we were doing; We just hopped on a plane and made it happen. I think part of it comes from looking at paintings in the naturalist school – looking at the work of Caspar David Friedrich, looking at the ways in which mountains are seen as closer to God and also loved. highly educated in a way that restores patriarchy and a sense of domination. And I think it’s going to be interesting to cross that line with a subset of people who are exploring this landscape with a sense of mystery, love to play. Those who are enveloped by the landscape and shunned by it.

You are working on this, but also have this partnership with American Express. I can imagine you getting thousands of company offers; I wonder why you chose to work with this company?

My inbox is full of things that don’t make sense. But their relationship with the Studio Museum of Harlem, their desire to create a connection with artists of color, with the organization that literally made my career, that’s something I can be proud of. . That said, there’s something very aspirational about museums, about picture frames in pure gold… And the language I use, this aspirational language, is part of the way Amex placed in popular culture. It was a small move for me.

American Express Platinum card design by Kehinde Wiley.
Photo: Courtesy of Amex

Can you tell me about your card design?

Well, it comes from actual pictures, but the deconstruction of it. I want something that you can almost live with, but you can feel it creeping into you. And I also wanted to allow each person to react to it in their own way, so that it was less like, Oh, that’s a painting by Kehinde Wileyand more, You know, that reminds me of something, but I can’t put my finger on it. More like an intimacy than hitting you over the head.

Before I let you go, I just have one more question. Everything at Basel this year seems to revolve around NFTs and the metaverse. What the hell are NFTs, and what do you think of them?

I stay away from all of that. I can’t quite get my head around some of the ownership and copyright issues surrounding them, and what you’re actually buying and whether there’s going to be some tweaking later. But it’s overwhelmingly gratifying to see so many people excited about something seemingly newly invented. I mean, it seems like this is the new big concept art practice invented out of nowhere. I’m sure many years from now, somewhere in an American research program, they’ll be talking about how the whole world became some kind of Warholian project. Kehinde Wiley on NFTs, Art Basel and His New Amex Card


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