Down the middle of this busy African beach, in stupendous summer heat, Kehinde Wiley is striding, a man you couldn’t miss: that black guy—which is to say not Arab, which most everyone else here is, in Morocco, just outside Casablanca. He’s the fellow over there, in the flashy pink bespoke shirt, with the motley retinue in tow, a gang of seven of whic
h I’m presently one, tied to Wiley as if by invisible strings. In front of him, boys teem across the flat glittering low-tide sands. They’re chasing soccer balls, their bodies lean and strong. Most in their teens, they run in and out of play, passing and giving chase. Despite large tortoiseshell aviators, there’s no question that Wiley’s eyes are on the boys—but not creepily. Professionally. Purposefully.
Wiley, as some of you may know, is an American artist, an unusually successful one. In the decade of his career to date, he’s become one of the most sought-after painters in America. Holland Cotter, of The New York Times, called Wiley “a history painter, one of the best we have…. He creates history as much as he tells it.” Even if you don’t know him by name, you’ve likely glimpsed his grand portraits of hip-hop artists—LL, Ice-T, Biggie. Maybe you’ve even seen his massive portrait of the King of Pop: the one of MJ in full armor, astride a prancing warhorse. If all this suggests that Wiley, a 36-year-old gay African-American man, is court painter to the black celebretariat, that misconception has been useful to promoting his brand, up to a point. More often Wiley’s paintings are of people you don’t know, people like those he’ll meet over the next month in five different African countries—Morocco, Tunisia, Gabon, Congo, and Cameroon—in search of representative men, hundreds he’ll photograph all over Africa, returning to his studio in Beijing to paint a wildly ambitious, continuing endeavor that he calls the World Stage. It’s why we’re on this tourist-free beach outside Casablanca today: scouting for models who will be part of a show already scheduled for October in Paris—just four months away—a show that will feature paintings of beautiful young men like these.
“That one,” Wiley says to a woman close by in his entourage, pointing at a passing boy. “You first,” he says, “and then I’ll join you.”
The young woman at Wiley’s side is Arab; her beautiful name is Narrimane. A local fixer, she is there to translate. Dark hair shaggily up and highlighted pale orange, Marlboro red between full, pretty lips, her black tank revealing black bra straps that strain against substantial breasts—no idle detail, given that the female bathers nearby go full burka in the mild surf, baring no more than dark eyes. Alone, Narrimane approaches a boy with a Boogie Board at the verge of the waves. Tall in a black Lycra mock-turtle surf tee, he listens to her Arabic as she gestures at Wiley, standing with arms crossed a ways off, mouth pursed ducklike, a public face, one he seems to adopt in moments of frustration or boredom or deep thought, a mask. The boy listens a beat, shakes his head east-west a few times, and slips away into the water.
Narrimane shrugs, and Wiley turns up-beach toward a group of boys congregated around an unsteady umbrella beneath which some are smoking. Narrimane makes her way over. Two boys, small-bodied in board shorts, greet her.
The Arabic preamble again; Narrimane gesturing to Wiley, who steps now into their midst. Spend an afternoon with Wiley and you’ll discover that he’s a champion talker. Seems to know something about everything and is interested in everyone, at least for a minute or two. You can get his attention easily, but keeping it’s another matter. You’d better be interesting, or he’s not interested. And this whole going-through-a-translator thing is clearly crimping his style. So he tries a little English, a little French, one of the languages spoken here by some. Wiley’s French is pretty good; the boys’ French is not. So as Narrimane continues in Arabic, Wiley shows the boys something he has in his hands: a perfect-bound Kinko’s-ish softcover filled with colorful pages—examples of his paintings. As he opens the book, you see that Wiley wears a wedding ring on his left hand. Later, when asked why he, a single gay man, would do this, he tells me it’s a bit of stagecraft, something to set the boys at ease. Wiley opens the notebook to a vivid image of a handsome African man in a skintight pale blue Puma athletic shirt, a large lemon yellow number 10 printed on the front. Seen from the waist up, arms comfortably crossed, he stands boldly, chin slightly raised, before an extravagantly patterned background. This is Wiley’s signature mode: an almost photo-realistically rendered foreground figure, skin alive with light and shade; a flamboyantly patterned, defiantly colorful background, its repeating pattern’s whorls creeping past the foreground figure like vines growing toward sunlight.
“Eto’o!” one of the boys exclaims, of the man in the painting.
“That’s right!” Wiley says, delighted. “Of course you know Eto’o!”
“Eto’o?” say some boys nearby, darting over as if a dinner bell’s been rung. They clot around Wiley and the first boy, looking at the image of Eto’o. Those of us not as well versed in international soccer heroes as teenage Moroccan males are may not recognize the name Samuel Eto’o—the Roger Federer of African soccer, all but a secular saint to a billion people.
A little guy with a Mohawk and bulging abs speaks. Narrimane says the boy wants to know if Wiley took the photo.
“Photo?” Wiley says, laughing. A deep, jolly laugh. “No,” he says, “it’s a painting. I painted this. Say that it’s a painting.”
Narrimane translates this into Arabic for the boys. Small nods, dense silence. It’s not clear if they get what Wiley means. Flipping pages, Wiley listens as the boys name other African footballers there—Eboué! Mensah!—but he also shows them paintings of faces they don’t recognize, boys and men with brown faces like theirs.
This is when Wiley says, “I want to paint you, like this. I want you to be my model. Translate, please.”
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