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Obama portrait artist Kehinde Wiley's work joins collection at MFA, St. Petersburg
Kehinde Wiley, Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel) , 2011, Oil and gold enamel on canvas, Acquired from the Collection of Blake Byrne, Los Angeles. Museum purchase with funds donated by the Collectors Circle for its 25th Anniversary with additional funds from James G. Sweeny.



ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.- A large-scale painting rich in color and regal in design from Kehinde Wiley’s acclaimed portrait series, The World Stage: Israel is now a part of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg’s permanent collection. This fall, the 2011 portrait, Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel) , was purchased with funds donated by the MFA support group, Collectors Circle, and arts supporter Jim Sweeny as part of the group’s 25th anniversary in 2020. Wiley is best known for painting the official portrait of President Barack Obama.

The MFA, St. Petersburg joins other top art institutions with works by Wiley in their collections: Brooklyn Museum of Art; Denver Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Milwaukee Art Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Wiley’s signature portraits brilliantly portray everyday people in typical street wear, transformed through monumental scale and backdrops of vivid motifs usually incorporating lush vegetation, spiral prints or blooming flowers. His models, often people of color, stand in heroic poses alluding to power and prestige, and reference not only Old Master paintings, but Classical sculpture. Wiley’s World Stage series expands beyond the painter’s trademark street-cast models of African-American men and women, extending his scope to an international scale, and taking him to locations with complex socio-political structures in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. In creating World Stage : Israel , the artist traveled to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Lod to find models of varied faiths and ethnic backgrounds at malls, clubs, and sporting events.

The MFA’s newest acquisition, Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel), depicts an Israeli man in casual clothes, standing in the pose of a Greco-Roman ruler or military leader. He stands against — and is partly enveloped by — designs evoking traditional Jewish tapestries and paper-cuttings, while his head is backed by a richly worked nimbus, or halo. The black, hand-carved frame, designed by Wiley, combines traditional imagery of the Hands of Kohen (symbolizing a blessing from a descendant of Aaron, the Old Testament high priest), the Lion of Judah (representing power and majesty in symmetrical, confronting pairs), and the tablets of The Ten Commandments.

“The MFA is thrilled to welcome this extraordinary work of art from such a visionary artist into our collection,” said MFA Executive Director Kristen A. Shepherd. “Kehinde Wiley’s work has not only elevated contemporary portraiture, but succeeds in telling stories and sharing experiences that have not been seen in such a bold, daring way before. We are proud to be able to present a work that showcases a strong voice of representation, inclusion, and tolerance, and to bring this important artist’s work to our community.”

Leviathan Zodiac is an important addition to the Museum’s holdings of works by AfricanAmerican artists. “The Collectors Circle’s gift marks the group’s 25th anniversary in 2020, and with this wonderful piece by Mr. Wiley, we are immensely proud to continue the tradition of bringing significant and exquisite artworks into the MFA Collection,” said Cynthia Astrack, President of the MFA’s Collectors Circle.

The monumental painting has been included in 11 museum exhibitions — including The Jewish Museum, New York (where it was also featured on the cover of the The World Stage: Israel exhibition catalogue); Brooklyn Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum; and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Wiley was born in Los Angeles and is based in New York and Beijing. He earned his MFA from Yale University in 2001, and has had solo exhibitions at major institutions across the United States. In 2015 he was honored with the U.S. Department of State’s Medal of Arts; received the W.E.B. Du Bois medal from Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research in 2018; and was a 2019 honoree of the Gordon Parks Foundation Award. This fall, Wiley’s first public sculpture, Rumors of War, made headlines when it was unveiled and temporarily displayed in Times Square. The massive sculpture, now in its permanent home at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, portrays a young black man in streetwear and dreadlocks atop a horse — a contemporary response to the Confederate monuments commonplace in the South.










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