Joslyn Art Museum quietly postpones famed artist’s exhibit after multiple assault allegations

At least three people have alleged Kehinde Wiley, famous for painting Obama, assaulted them.

To celebrate the end of a massive renovation project that shuttered its doors for more than two years, Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum lined up some major exhibitions, including new works by famed painter Kehinde Wiley.

But after multiple men came forward alleging Wiley sexually assaulted them, the Joslyn removed references to the artist and his work that was set to make its debut at the Sept. 10 reopening.

Wednesday, the museum confirmed to the Flatwater Free Press that the exhibit, “Kehinde Wiley: Omaha,” will not premiere in 2024.

“We are revisiting our exhibition schedule,” Amy Rummel, director of marketing and public relations, said in an email. “The Joslyn will announce any updates at a later date.”

Asked whether the decision was related to the allegations against Wiley and if the exhibit might debut at a later date, among other questions, Rummel said she had no other details at this time.

Primarily known for his stylistic approach of painting people of color in classical European poses, Wiley gained acclaim for increasing the visibility and representation of marginalized populations. 

In 2018, Wiley famously painted a portrait of former-President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. 

According to a since deleted page on the Joslyn website, Wiley’s work for the museum’s exhibition focused primarily on first and second-generation South Sudanese immigrants living in Omaha.

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Wiley was in Omaha last fall, according to the deleted page, for photo shoots that would serve as the source material for his portraits. The subjects were posed based on European masterpieces in the museum’s collection. 

Representatives for the artist reached Wednesday by Flatwater Free Press denied the allegations and provided material, in addition to screenshots of text conversations the artist posted on Instagram, they say disprove the claims.

The first allegation of assault came in a May 19 Instagram post by Ghanaian artist Joseph Awuah-Darko. Awuah-Darko wrote that Wiley sexually assaulted him in June 2021 and that “it almost destroyed me.”

“I hope my words and openness about my painful experience empower others to come forward. I hope all that unravels creates a path towards not only accountability, but recompense and collective healing for other victims.”

Wiley denied the allegations in a statement provided to the art news publication Hyperallergic.

“Someone I had a brief, consensual relationship with is now making false, disturbing, and defamatory accusations about our time together,” he said. “These claims are deeply hurtful to me, and I will pursue all legal options to bring the truth to light and clear my name. These accusations are also a slap in the face to all victims of sexual abuse.” 

On Monday, Hyperallergic reported two other artists have accused Wiley of assault. In an Instagram post, Derrick Ingram said Wiley raped him in September 2021 and that Wiley asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement the following month. United Kingdom artist Nathaniel Lloyd Richards alleged Wiley groped him during a date in 2019, Hyperallergic reported. 

An attorney representing Wiley told the news outlet that Ingram and Wiley had a “one-time consensual encounter” and that Wiley denied that there was any inappropriate conduct toward Richards.

The attorney did not respond to a request for comment from Flatwater Free Press.

Prior to the allegations, Flatwater Free Press reached out to the Joslyn on May 14 to set interviews with Wiley, the exhibition curator and sitters whom Wiley painted. Museum officials said they would follow up in early June. They then went silent until June 12. Then, told that FFP reporters had learned of the accusations against Wiley and the exhibit being deleted from the Joslyn website, they issued the brief statement saying it wouldn’t happen in 2024.

The Joslyn closed to the public in May 2022 for a massive renovation project that will expand its gallery space by more than 40%, according to the museum. Its reopening will include the first public presentation of new art acquired from the Phillip G. Schrager collection.

The shelved exhibition wouldn’t have been the first time Wiley’s work went on display at the Joslyn. In 2019, the museum hosted the multi-year traveling exhibition 30 Americans. Featuring a roster of only African-American artists, the exhibition included works by Wiley, Kara Walker, Purvis Young, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nick Cave and others. 

That same year, as part of a push for a more diverse collection, the Joslyn acquired works by Wiley, Walker, Omaha-based artist Therman Statom and others.

Wiley’s piece, “Three Girls in a Wood” featured predominantly in one of the main contemporary galleries prior to the closure for the expansion. “We have planned for these acquisitions for some time now,” Joslyn CEO and executive director Jack Becker told Artdaily at the time, “and they reflect Joslyn’s commitment to diversifying the Museum’s holdings of works by women and artists of color. … Each of these works is an incredible addition to the collection on its own. Together, they signal a fresh approach to collecting at Joslyn.”

By Jonathan Orozco

Jonathan Orozco is an independent journalist and art historian in Omaha, where he has lived for the majority of his life. He earned a B.A. in art history from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He regularly contributes to local and national art publications on the Omaha-Lincoln art scene, like in White Hot Magazine, Artillery Magazine, Omaha Magazine and The Reader.

By Chris Bowling

Chris Bowling is an investigative reporter for Flatwater Free Press. Prior to joining Flatwater Free Press Chris was an investigative reporter and editor for The Reader, Omaha's alternative monthly newspaper where he focused on issues like climate change, housing, health, criminal justice and social issues. A native of Cincinnati, Bowling graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2018.

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