Kehinde Wiley Unveils “A Maze of Power” – Capturing African Heads of State in Ornate Portraits

Nana Akufo Addo President of Ghana by artist Kehinde Wiley

In a captivating and ambitious artistic endeavor, acclaimed artist Kehinde Wiley has unveiled “A Maze of Power,” a stunning collection of presidential portraits now on display at Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris. This project, which has quietly been in the making since 2012, challenges traditional notions of leadership, identity, and aesthetics through a unique fusion of African heads of state and the ornate “vocabulary of power” borrowed from Western European art history.

Portrait of Alpha Condé, former president of Guinea, by the artist Kehinde Wiley, on exhibition at Quai Branly Museum. © Courtesy Musée du Quai Branly
Portrait of Alpha Condé, former president of Guinea, by the artist Kehinde Wiley, on exhibition at Quai Branly Museum. © Courtesy Musée du Quai Branly

While Kehinde Wiley is celebrated for his iconic portrait of President Barack Obama, it’s “A Maze of Power” that offers a profound exploration of the intersection of African leadership and Western artistic traditions. The artist poses a compelling question that sets the tone for the entire collection: “What happens when we use the language of aesthetic domination in the context of Africa in the 21st century?”

This ambitious project features portraits of African leaders such as Macky Sall, Nana Akufo-Addo, Olusegun Obasanjo, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, and Félix Tshisekedi, among others. Each portrait is an intricate masterpiece, showcasing Wiley’s unparalleled craftsmanship and his ability to infuse the regal essence of his subjects into his work.

What sets “A Maze of Power” apart is Wiley’s unique approach to creating these portraits. He embarked on a monumental journey to meet all 54 African presidents individually, painting them in locations of their choosing. Armed with a book of aristocratic, noble, and military portraits from 17th to 19th-century Europe, Wiley introduced a “vocabulary of power” that each president could embrace or disregard in their portraits.

“The ‘Maze of Power’ is the maze that’s being run by me, the artist, but also by the sitter—the sitter deciding how they want to be seen, me responding to their set of decisions,” Wiley elucidated in a thought-provoking short film accompanying the project. “Each one of us is responding to a received history of image-making, power, and the ways in which art function within that dynamic.”.

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Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Hery Rajaonarimampianina, President of Madagascar (2023). Courtesy the artist and TEMPLON, Paris, Brussels, New York. Photo: Tanguy Beurdeley.

Importantly, Wiley deliberately steered clear of politics while creating this series. He emphasized that “A Maze of Power” is not a “celebration of individual leaders” but rather a profound exploration of the concept of the presidency itself, transcending political divides and ideologies.

In a world where presidential portraits often evoke solemnity and tradition, Kehinde Wiley’s “A Maze of Power” transcends convention. It offers a fresh and intricate perspective on African leadership and its connection to the rich tapestry of European art history. This exclusive exhibition, organized in partnership with Galerie Templon, is a testament to Wiley’s dedication to bridging continents and cultures through the language of art.

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Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Olusegun Obasanjo, Former President of Nigeria (2023). Courtesy the artist and TEMPLON, Paris, Brussels, New York. Photo: Tanguy Beurdeley

As Kehinde Wiley’s “A Maze of Power” takes its place in the annals of contemporary art, it invites viewers to delve into the complexities of leadership, identity, and the enduring power of visual representation. In doing so, it creates a unique dialogue between past and present, challenging us to reimagine the role of art in understanding the intricacies of power and identity in the modern world.

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