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Inside Obama portraitist Kehinde Wiley’s West African art party: ‘We’re just doing us’

Obama portrait artist Kehinde Wiley, second from right, and model Naomi Campbell hang out on a couch in the artist’s compound. (Danelle Paquette/The Washington Post)

DAKAR — It’s Sunday night in Dakar, and Naomi Campbell is vaping.

Alicia Keys is taking selfies with fans by the open bar, resting her coral-polished fingertips on their rainbow vests, their linen jumpsuits, their white T-shirts.

Her husband, the producer Swizz Beatz, bobs his head nearby as Cardi B’s voice fills this airy artist compound on a seaside cliff.

And Kehinde Wiley, the American artist who brought everyone here, is dancing so close to the infinity pool that some guests at the launch party for his new residency program — Black Rock Senegal — wonder aloud if he’ll fall in. 

They keep their iPhones pointed at the Barack Obama portraitist, a favorite of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. He keeps his balance. Only the waves below crash. 

“Look at him!” says Senegalese fashion designer Adama Paris, watching Wiley move in a gold-striped boubou, a traditional three-piece robe made with wax. “Our kings, our chiefs, used to wear that.”

She’s thrilled to see this scene unfold in Dakar, the capital of a former French colony, the westernmost point on the continent — even in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim month of prayer, reflection and restraint. 

Most people in the city are fasting from sunrise to sunset, but partygoers at Wiley’s bash have shrugged off the odd timing to celebrate something they call special.

Black Rock, named after the volcanic stones on the shore, is a departure from many art projects in Africa, which tend to be supported by or commissioned with foreign money. Outside pressure can hinder free expression, experts say, when creators feel pushed to cater to tourists or aid workers.

 Not here, says Paris, the organizer behind Dakar’s Fashion Week

“We’re not trying to fit in or pretend,” she says. “This is about us. We’re just doing us.”

Wiley, a celebrity artist of the African diaspora, has already highlighted local style.

He hired a Senegalese architect to design the Black Rock compound, which is hidden along a dirt path in the Yoff Virage village. He ordered Amazakoue wood from Cameroon for the 20-foot-tall entrance doors. He’s serving neon pink Bissap cocktails.

“It’s powerful,” Paris says. “It’s energetic.”

“It’s like he wanted to say to the world: Look over here,” says Nathalie Vairac, a stage actress with long braids down her burnt-orange gown.

“It’s about the black experience,” says Ndey Buri, a Senegalese and Cameroonian fashion writer and model in a blue, yellow and black cape made by a local tailor. 

Wiley, who was born in Los Angeles to an African American mother and a Nigerian father, is known for his polychromatic renderings of black models with old school twists. (Think Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five depicted as 17th-century Dutch civic guards.)

He first visited Dakar two decades ago on a layover from Nigeria, where he’d gone to find his estranged dad, an architecture professor in the southern state of Akwa Ibom, he told New York Magazine

That reunion was awkward, but the love for West Africa stuck. Over the years, he has voiced intentions to establish his own roots in the region. And by Monday, he was posing on Instagram with Senegalese President Macky Sall “in celebration of the opening of @blackrocksenegal.”

Senegal is regarded as one of Africa’s most politically stable nations with a steady growth rate. It’s also a magnet for creatives with a publicly funded biennial art fair, a graffiti festival and highway-side murals of boats, mangoes, lions, the Senegalese flag — whatever survives the taxi exhaust and saltwater spray. 

Dakar is home to a handful of artist residencies that supply housing, training and industry connections to painters, writers and photographers.

Wiley’s program has grabbed the brightest spotlight, thanks to the buzz in 2018 from his official portrait of former president Barack Obama. The presence of his top model and Grammy-winning pals doesn’t hurt, either. (Keys and Campbell were spotted around Dakar for a long weekend.)

More than 700 people from around the world have applied for one- to three-month stays at Black Rock, said studio manager Rosey Selig-Addiss. Fifteen or so will be selected in the next couple of weeks. 

They’ll arrive three at a time and live in townhouses on the property next to Wiley’s personal studio, where tutors will be available to teach them French, English and Wolof — Senegal’s mother tongue.

They’ll mingle with Dakar artists, venture to museums and boat to Gorée island, once the largest slave-trading center on the African coast. 

Then they’ll get to work.

“It’s time for the continent to tell its own narrative,” said Jenke Ahmed Tailly, a Senegalese and Ivorian stylist and consultant who works with Beyoncé, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

He scanned the room at Wiley’s party in late May, gesturing toward the glitter-dusted headscarves, pastel satin robes, leopard-print heels and leather fringe. A shirtless man in body paint sprang into a handstand. 

“The 20th century was European,” Tailly said. “The 21st century — it’s going to be African.”

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