Portrait of Melissa Thompson
- Stephen Friedman Gallery
American artist Kehinde Wiley completed this portrait in 2020 as one of a series of six paintings titled ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, made for an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London.
Wiley, who painted the official portrait of President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, is known for his depictions of young Black men inspired by Old Master paintings.
For ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, he invited local Black women and girls to sit for their portraits after scouting for subjects in Ridley Road Market, east London. The aim, he has said, ‘is to use the language of the decorative to reconcile blackness, gender, and a beautiful and terrible past’.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ takes its title from a short story of 1892 by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The narrative concerns a woman who becomes obsessed by the wallpaper in an attic room to which she has been confined by her husband. Only by scraping off the paper does she believe she can free herself.
Wiley has used William Morris designs as backdrops in his portraits for more than 15 years. The pattern in Portrait of Melissa Thompson is Morris & Co’s ‘Wild Tulip’. Morris’s daughter, May Morris, is known to have become friends with Gilman after they met at an International Socialist Conference in London in 1896.
Portrait of Melissa Thompson joins the V&A, where work by Morris and his contemporaries features in the collection. The acquisition builds on the V&A’s growing body of work by Black artists and designers.
The painting was created in New York and Beijing in 2020 and then installed at the William Morris Gallery exhibition The Yellow Wallpaper in London, which ran from 22 February - 12 July 2020. Following the exhibition, the painting was relocated to Stephen