Kehinde Wiley paints African football

Wiley is best known for using contemporary African American men in poses taken from the annals of art history. Now he has done this with Africa's best football talent.

Kehinde Wiley's painting of John Mensah, Samuel Eto'o and Emmanuel Eboue.

The German shoe and sportswear company, Puma, sponsors at least 12 African national football teams. Five of these have qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. To commemorate the World Cup year (and because it is good PR and to sell shirts), Puma commissioned Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley to create four new works of arts inspired by the football stars Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, John Mensah of Ghana and Emmanuel Eboué of Ivory Coast. The campaign made good use of Wiley’s style: “… Wiley is best known for using contemporary African American men in poses taken from the annals of art history and for his distinctive use of elaborate, graphic and colorful wallpaper-like backgrounds.”

Wiley painted individual portraits of the players and a fourth painting of the three players “symbolizing the united countries of Africa.” The players are wearing the “Unity” kit, a limited edition uniform designed to be a third kit (apart from home and away kits) shared by all African teams, symbolizing unity.  Puma laid on the PR pretty thick about the third kit: “… The brown pigment in the kit was a customized pantone PUMA created by mixing actual soil samples from four different African nations—Ghana, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire and Mozambique. The brown to blue color gradient represented the soil to the sky progression.” Everyone is in a good mood about the kits and the World Cup, so there’s been no negative press.

Wiley, who grew up in South Central, LA, in the 1980s, has been interested in the continent for a while. In 2008, in a short profile in The New Yorker in August 2008, he spoke about his personal search for identity, including traveling to Nigeria. Wiley first travelled to Nigeria in 1997. “He was trying to find his father, whom he had never met, or, more crucially for a portraitist, seen. (His mother didn’t have any photographs.)”

After several weeks in Lagos, he found his dad, who welcomed him. But … Wiley, who was born in Los Angeles and lives in Brooklyn, was also looking for a sense of belonging, and his homecoming was not as seamless as he had dreamed. Still, the place has a pull on him. In December [2008], he attended his half sister’s wedding, in the city of Uyo. He brought his mother, who had not seen his father in thirty years.

In 2008, he debuted “The World Stage: Africa,” a series of paintings of paintings from Senegal and Nigeria. Wiley’s models “mimicked historical public sculptures from Dakar, Senegal, and Lagos, Nigeria.” In his words, the “… series brings into focus African youth in both cities, and highlights local representations of power and calls attention to the ways that black youth seek to represent themselves outside of colonial and national modes of representation, often by turning to African diasporic forms such as hip-hop to gain visibility outside dominant visual regimes.”

Here’s a video of Wiley at work on the project. He is joined by Mensah, Eboue and Eto’o:

The paintings will be exhibited during the World Cup, but is making a world tour now.

Update: And here is the ad Puma made, as “a celebration of true football”:

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