'Portrait of Melissa Thompson' by Kehinde Wiley

This audio clip describes Portrait of Melissa Thompson by Kehinde Wiley.

It has been created for use as part of our primary school resource, The Superpower of Looking, in order to support pupils with blindness or visual impairment to take part in the lessons.

Explore the painting further in our resource, A powerful portrait by Kehinde Wiley.

Portrait of Melissa Thompson

Portrait of Melissa Thompson 2020

Kehinde Wiley (b.1977)

Victoria and Albert Museum

Full audio description text

This oil painting on linen was made in 2020 by the artist Kehinde Wiley. It is called Portrait of Melissa Thompson and combines an urban street vibe with fantasy. In a black oval frame, 265 cms tall and just over 200cms wide, a young black woman is sitting in a solid-looking upright chair, her arms resting on its wooden arms. The left side of the chair is slightly angled away from us. Its frame is carved with flowers and more are embroidered along the front edge of its padded yellow cushion. This is a lighter shade of the buttery-yellow colour of the wallpaper that covers the entire background, forming a backdrop against which the chair and its occupant seem to be floating.

Melissa stares out at us, her head drawn back, her chin tucked in, eyebrows raised, as if surprised to find herself the object of our gaze. She’s realistically painted, her Afro curls cut close to her head; her eyebrows plucked into two thin but distinctive lines. The light falls dramatically on her forehead and cheeks, making her image stand out and her dark skin glow. Yet there are no shadows cast by the chair. She’s in street clothes: a blue zip-up jacket open over a pale lilac hoodie. Its slogan is in black capital letters highlighted with yellow, but we can’t read it because of the jacket and because of folds in the fabric of her top. The hood pools around her neck. At its centre charms dangle from a metal chain. A diamond stud pierces her right ear. Her black jeans have a series of rips across from the tops of her thighs to her knees where a shiny kneecap pokes through the ragged edges of the denim. Just a few strands of cotton hold them together. The jeans bunch up by her bare ankles. On her feet are black Nike trainers with their distinctive tick.

Her relaxed right hand dangles down, her fingers lightly touching the black cotton between two rips in her jeans. Her left hand is palm up, her fingers folding in, directing our attention to her pink wrist band. The yellow wallpaper is decorated with a tangle of flower buds and stems, the thicker stems outlined in pale blue and shaded with red. Where they meet the chair, they come away from the wall, climbing over and across the chair, as if to trap the young woman.

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