When former President Barack Obama chose artist Kehinde Wiley to paint his official portrait, everyone knew Wiley’s interpretation was destined to stand out from the other paintings of previous presidents hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. Sure enough, the unveiling of Obama’s portrait on Feb. 12 was quickly met with controversy. Some people believed the painting too abstract, others found the background foliage confusing — and then there was the fact that Wiley had, in paintings completed in 2012, depicted black women holding the severed heads of white women after seemingly decapitating them. (Not making matters better, in an interview with Christopher Beam of New York Magazine, Wiley explained the work by offhandedly saying “It’s sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing.”)

Conservative news sites, not surprisingly, got out the pitchforks and torches. But more broadly, the widespread confusion over Wiley’s work points to a fundamental misconception held by American audiences who engage with art.

An audience that wants to read presidential portraits as a traditional representation of strength will be disappointed by someone like Wiley.

The general public tends to assume that contemporary paintings should be easily understandable for anyone with eyes to see them (and for more sophisticated audiences, for anyone who spends time and attention on the work). But this is not the case. Even if you are familiar with the moods, settings and styles of portraits you have previously seen, you are not necessarily equipped to understand Kehinde Wiley’s work. Wiley’s art — including the controversial beheading pieces — riff on the earlier portraits of by European Renaissance painters such as Caravaggio’s depiction of Judith Beheading Holofernes from circa 1599. Wiley also references the painting titled “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Read more