So every step along the way, it just became more and more real, and more and more possible.
Fadulu: So what was the interview like?
Wiley: Of course the president wanted to know what it is that I would bring to the picture. I spoke really honestly about what excited me about him and me being involved in this historical moment: the sense in which we both share that story of having African fathers and American mothers. That sort of journey to find the father, that yearning to try and create some sort of internationalist presence in our work.
I spoke about the possibilities, allegorically, of telling his story in a painting. And so what you end up with in that painting are some amazing botanicals that are visually captivating, but they also nod toward certain flowers that are prominent in Indonesia, certain leaves that are prominent in Hawaii, the state flower of Illinois, the flowers that are most commonly seen in the grasslands of Kenya.
All of those strange, forest-like spaces are behind him and pushing up and forward. Those were the things that I was discussing as a possibility, and I think that it must’ve set something right.
Fadulu: You said it became more real as you went through the process. Were you working at all on it before it was official?
Wiley: Oh, God, yeah. I had gone to photograph him, and that wasn’t quite right, so I went back and I photographed him again. There were months of just trying to figure out how to artificially create this type of image on the computer and approximate what it would look like, and then start doing studies and see what it looks like in the actual paint. It was a long time coming. But in the end, it was all worth it.
Fadulu: Those months of trying to figure out how to create it—were there any big lessons from that?
Wiley: Just slow down. The more important the portrait, the more nuance the likeness has to have, the slower you have to get. So I had to get smaller brushes, really concentrate on just doing small passages per day, rather than trying to do broad strokes. And so it was a very different type of painting. You can feel it, almost, when you look at that painting, it's a much more contemplative piece. But I got very familiar with his face.
Fadulu: How did you feel about its reception?
Wiley: Well, he told me, “This is what I do, I’m used to the national spotlight, the global spotlight, but you’re new to this, so get ready. It’s gonna be a big deal.” And boy, was it ever.
I’ve never seen a work of art go viral that way and become a global sensation. And, of course, you’re dealing with the culture wars, and powers and principalities, and the Republicans and the Democrats. It did come as a shock to see that people would get so excited as to start sending death notices and threatening letters and all of this.
It’s surprising, but when seen in the proper context, when seen as a type of cultural signpost, when that painting is seen as what it is, which is a moment of celebration for him and his high-water mark within our culture, then you recognize it’s bigger than you are.