BEFORE YOU EVEN step out of the taxi from the airport, there’s an unmistakable sense that something is happening in Senegal. Driving your way into Dakar, the streets are teeming with people, the sharp West African sun is shining bright, and the vibe is irrepressibly buzzing. As you get closer to the beach-lined coast, there are tall palms and art deco buildings painted dusty pink, and everywhere you can see huge whitecap waves breaking on the Atlantic. Before I’ve even fully checked into my room, I spot the supercool New York fashion designer Telfar Clemens lounging by the hotel pool, here on vacation in Senegal to soak it all up. Dakar, it seems, is the place to be.
It’s within this context that Kehinde Wiley, one of the most famous artists in the world, has planted a flag with Black Rock Senegal. This compound on the sea, which he built from the ground up, is part home, part studio, and part living quarters for young artists who come here to stay and work as part of a special residency program. The space, designed by the local architect Abib Djenne, was opened to its first round of residents in 2019. Since then, Wiley has had about 40 artists stay for anywhere from one to three months.
Wiley has created a luxury environment for them, as he thinks artists deserve to be spoiled: There’s an infinity pool that looks out onto the Atlantic, a sauna, and, most importantly, beautiful private art studios with big windows facing the ocean. Black Rock is an oasis amidst the heat and hustle of Dakar, down a quiet back road, behind a hulking black gate, and perched above a beach of black volcanic rocks (hence the name).
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When I show up on a hot spring day, there’s a nice party vibe. Beers and Negronis are being drunk, and friends are wandering in and out of the main house where Wiley lives. On this night, Wiley will host a big event to celebrate a new exhibition of work from Black Rock artists. But though there’s a frisson in the air, Wiley, on a couch in the living room facing a panorama of waves, is relaxed, dressed in wrinkly gray linen and bare feet. “I wanted it to be a story of the ocean, right?” he says of the building. “That’s the star of the show.” He is recently back from a trip to Venice, Italy, where he staged an ambitious new exhibition as part of the city’s renowned Biennale. But here at Black Rock, chaos melts away. “It’s a respite,” he says. “There’s something about coming into a place in the Sahel that’s coastal, that’s got this mild-tempered climate — a peaceful remove. My blood pressure goes down, and my sense of time augments.”
Wiley has been feverishly producing for over 20 years, building the career that would bring him to this distinguished moment. He is known for painting Black men in modern twists on Baroque portraiture, a playful but purposeful comeuppance for the Western canon’s gleaming Caucasian-ness. He’d often cast young Black men he’d spot on the streets of Harlem, showing them in contemporary garb against backdrops of blazing color and flower petals. “It had to do with the early 2000s depiction of Black masculinity in pop culture, specifically hip-hop and bling — that kind of hypermasculinity, that two-dimensional caricature. I wanted to blast through that,” he says. “Body language that challenged traditional masculinity, backgrounds that expressed growth and the feminine. It just became its own thing.”
Wiley’s celebrity truly soared in 2018 after he painted Barack Obama’s portrait. He was the first Black artist to do an official White House portrait — of the first Black president, no less. An enigmatic but beautiful work, Obama is shown seated in front of a bright, curious wall of greenery. “Like any head of state, [he wanted] to be seen in a dignified manner for all eternity, but to be seen accurately. He was incredibly aware of the consequences of art being at the service of political power,” Wiley says, showing me iPhone photos of them together in the Oval Office. “He wanted an everyman sensibility. He’s relaxed, he’s leaning forward, he’s engaging the viewer. These are small revolutions that he’s signaling.” Now Wiley is using the attention, momentum, and resources he’s earned to build something in Black Rock that’s bigger than even him. “I could go sit on a beach in Bora Bora,” he says, “or I can take the blessings and pay it forward.”
Wiley is not Senegalese by blood. He was born and raised in Los Angeles; his mother is African American and his father is Nigerian. His parents split up before he was born, and his father moved back to Nigeria. His mom encouraged creativity in Wiley and his twin brother. “My mom sent us to art school at age 11 to stay away from what was going on. This is ’80s gang warfare, South Central LA, the riots. It was a heavy time, and she was just like, ‘You’re not going to be out here like that,’” he says. “She didn’t know what fire she was setting. She just created this outlet. I was the guy who stuck with it.”
When Wiley was 19, he came looking for his father on the continent, stopping first in Senegal. “Flying into the Sahel, I remember that sandy red soil,” he says. “I remember all the billboards having Black people on them and being so shocked.” He began coming to Africa more frequently, eventually doing a series of paintings of subjects from Dakar and Lagos in 2008. All the while, West Africa was experiencing a flourishing of art, culture, and commerce, which some have called a New African Renaissance. Accra in Ghana and Lagos in Nigeria have fertile creative scenes, with the latter being one of today’s musical centers of the universe thanks to the global popularity of Afrobeats artists like Wizkid, Tems, and Burna Boy. Wiley, who has a home in Nigeria, is in the process of building another artist residency and exhibition space there.
As for Dakar, there is so much energy in the air it’s practically electric. At sunset, when the heat of the day is done, the oceanside overfills with people who come to work out at outdoor gyms built along the cliffs, kick soccer balls around the beaches, and walk long stretches of the coast. “We have one of the youngest populations globally. You see construction everywhere. There’s a promise here based on developing nations finally having access to the means to lift themselves up,” Wiley says. “Some of that has to do with economics. And some of it has to do with looking inward and saying, ‘Let’s stop using France as the model for creative content or America as the means by which we judge quality. Why can’t we make stuff here?’”
The power of Black Rock is bigger than art: It’s that Wiley can provide a chance for creatives from around the world to feel what’s happening in West Africa. “When you have artists of every race, nationality, gender, and age group invited to simply spend time here — that’s the work,” he says. “It’s a firsthand point of view. You’re not being told what to think.” In his paintings, he’s always tried to show a fuller, deeper picture of Black life than is often offered, and with Black Rock, he is hoping to do the same. Much of the image of Africa that the Western world receives through the media is one-dimensional and xenophobic. It’s a land, he says, only of “disease, war, corruption.” By bringing people to Black Rock, he can show something different. “This, too, is Africa,” he says, looking at the beauty around him.
Contrary to the idea of the artist as a tortured creature, Wiley is genuinely enjoying his success. “The image of the artist is one who’s in the cave, working on his magnum opus,” he says. “But I think, in a very African way, the life of the mind has to connect with other minds. I’m surrounded by my family, by my friends. I just bring them — they get to see cool things, and we get to be closer all the time.” Here, he loves to hit the clubs, eat at seaside restaurants, drive around in ATVs, barbecue. He fishes three times a week, taking a boat out right from Black Rock’s back beach and snagging marlin and tuna. Art is just part of what’s important here — life, with all of its thrills, is the main attraction. “What’s the word for it? It’s …” he pauses, searching for a descriptor of what it’s like to be in Dakar. “Entertaining.”
Alex Frank Writer
Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Frank Frances Photographer
Frank Frances is a New York–based artist who has shown in solo and group exhibitions at Sasha Wolf Projects, the Studio Museum of Harlem, and Glasshouse. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Bloomberg Businessweek. His first book, “Remember the South,” was published by Monolith Editions.