Artist reimagines classic paintings with modern twist

Story highlights

  • Kehinde Wiley repaints classic artworks to feature "people who happen to look like me -- black and brown people"
  • "Art is about communicating power," he says, and even a mug shot can be a form for portraiture

(CNN)To Kehinde Wiley, art is all about power.

"It's been that way for hundreds of years. Artists have been very good at working for the church and for the state; communicating the aspirations of a society."
    "What I choose to do is to take people who happen to look like me -- black and brown people all over the world, increasingly -- and to allow them to occupy that field of power."
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    His ability to translate that power to oil on canvas is astounding.
    Take Jacques-Louis David's famous portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps atop his favorite horse, Marengo, in all his vainglory.
    Wiley's reinterpretation shows the same white horse, but ridden instead by a black man in camouflage and Timberland boots, in front of a garish red backdrop.
    "What is portraiture? It's choice," he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "It's the ability to position your body in the world for the world to celebrate you on your own terms."
    That power, of course, is violently stripped away in an unlikely form of portraiture.
    "I remember it like it was yesterday, walking down the street. And here's this crumpled piece of paper, and on it is a very sympathetic image of this young man.
    "And it turns out to be a mug shot photo. And it got me thinking about mug shots, certainly, but also mug shots as a type of portraiture."
    "And it got me also thinking about the role of an artist within society. What can I do to start a broader conversation about presence and imminence and the desire to be seen as respected and beautiful in this world?"
    In America, a country so publicly (and violently) uncomfortable with race, Wiley says, his foremost goal as an artist is to identify the humanity of his subjects.
    "I'm about looking at each of those perceived menacing black men that you see in the streets all over the place, people that you oftentimes will walk past without assuming that they have the same humanity, fears that we all do."
    "I understand blackness from the inside out. What my goal is, is to allow the world to see the humanity that I know personally to be the truth."
    "My job is to walk through the streets, find someone who's minding their own business, trying to get to work, stopping them -- the next thing you know, they're hanging on a great museum throughout the world, and it allows us to slow down and to say yes to these people, yes to these experiences, yes to these stories."