Art theme: identity

Artists think carefully about how to express identity when constructing an image of a person, whether creating images of themselves or someone else. It's important to consider how to convey someone's personality and qualities, interests and beliefs in an artwork. How can an artist show the things that are important to that person? How can they help viewers gain a sense of their experiences, culture and background? 

Artists give viewers an insight into a person's unique identity in all manner of ways. For instance, in figurative art, artists may make use of features such as clothing, hairstyle and accessories, as well as facial expressions, gestures and pose. The objects and background they portray their subject with can also help to cast light on a person's identity.

Contextual background for teachers

Portrait of Melissa Thompson (2020)
Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977)

Medium: oil on linen
Dimensions: H 265.5 x W 201.8 cm

Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley has become well-known for portraits of people of colour with nods to the traditions of European and American portraiture. In this way, he challenges the exclusion of Black subjects within the history of art. Compare Portrait of Melissa Thompson with a royal or aristocratic portrait such as George III by Joshua Reynolds or even this painting of Elizabeth II. Can you spot elements in these paintings which Wiley has borrowed? Presented in a similar style, Melissa Thompson presents just as powerful an image as the historical portraits Wiley references.

Melissa sits against a patterned backdrop, typical of Wiley’s work. Here, he looks again to artists of the past, taking inspiration from the Wild Tulip design created by Victorian craftsman William Morris. What is the effect of placing Melissa, dressed in a hoodie and ripped jeans, against this traditional wallpaper design?

This artwork is part of Wiley’s series The Yellow Wallpaper: a group of paintings depicting Black women (all recruited through a street-casting process on the streets of London) in powerful poses borrowed from historical portraiture and set against richly patterned backgrounds.

Look, describe and discuss

Open larger images of the work, including close-ups of details, on the V&A Museum website. 

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

An audio description of the painting is available. It is accompanied by a full written transcript which can also be used to describe the painting.

Nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What are your first impressions of the person in this painting?
  • What do you notice about her clothes?
  • Where do you think she is sitting for this painting?
  • Do you notice anything unusual about the yellow wallpaper in the background?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You can introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers while asking these bespoke questions with helpful responses which can be found in the teachers' notes.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.



  • Listen to the audio description of the painting.

Art UK Learn · Portrait of Melissa Thompson by Kehinde Wiley, Victoria and Albert Museum, London


  • Touch the textures shown in the painting: wood, various fabrics, a metal chain and rubber wristband. Which feel shiny, rough or smooth?


  • Explore sitting in different ways on your chair. In pairs, students could photograph the different poses. Which pose feels relaxed, proud or nervous? 


Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



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