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Artist Kehinde Wiley denies accusations of sexual assault

By Stephy Chung and Nicole Mowbray, CNN

(CNN) — Kehinde Wiley, the American artist best known for painting former US President Barack Obama’s official portrait, has denied accusations of sexual assault.

In an Instagram post shared Sunday, British-Ghanaian artist and curator Joseph Awuah-Darko alleged Wiley sexually assaulted him twice in 2021. Awuah-Darko said the first incident occurred on June 9, 2021, at a dinner held at the Noldor Artist Residency in Ghana, to celebrate Wiley’s work. Awuah-Darko is the founder and chairman of the Accra-based program.

In the post, he claimed he was “inappropriately groped” by Wiley, in front of another guest, and that the action was “unwelcome and unprovoked.” He then described a second incident that day as “much more severe and violent,” without elaborating further. (In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, he claimed that “a sexual encounter began consensually, but that it then moved to a bedroom, where… Mr. Wiley forced himself on him after Mr. Awuah-Darko had said he did not want to go further.”)

The assaults “almost destroyed me,” Awuah-Darko wrote in the post, adding he hoped that others would feel empowered to come forward.

Shortly after the post was published, Wiley denied the allegations, writing on his own Instagram that, “Someone I had a brief, consensual relationship with almost three years ago is now making a false accusation about our time together. These claims are not true and are an affront to all victims of sexual abuse.”

“I have no idea why he has decided to target me in this way — particularly when there is a litany of evidence showing his claims are false — but I hope he gets the help he needs for whatever he is going through,” Wiley continued. “I kindly ask for privacy as I work to clear my name.

Representatives for Wiley provided CNN with a copy of a cease and desist letter they say was sent to Awuah-Darko demanding he immediately remove what they describe as “categorically false and defamatory,” Instagram posts. The letter frames Awuah-Darko’s claims as “malicious” and intended to “ruin (Wiley’s) reputation for… financial gain and attention.”

CNN was also shown copies of messages between Awuah-Darko and Wiley which representatives for Wiley assert were sent in the months following the alleged assault. In some, Awuah-Darko appears to be making arrangements to attend a birthday party for Wiley in Nigeria; in another he asks if he could visit Wiley at his home in upstate New York. (It appears Wiley failed to respond to this message.)

Awuah-Darko and his legal representative did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for further comment on his allegations, as well as Wiley’s response, however, in his Sunday statement on Instagram, he said he “did not immediately confront the reality of my abuse as such,” and that it took “several months to reconcile with what had actually happened.”

“I am aware I’m not the perfect sexual assault victim,” Awuah-Darko told the New York Times, “but this is what happened to me.”

In an earlier Instagram video posted in March, Awuah-Darko had claimed he was “sexually assaulted by someone who outranks me in privilege, power…” and that he was aiming to raise $200,000 for legal fees.

Awuah-Darko said Monday that he planned on taking legal action in a post on his Instagram stories. Awuah-Darko’s legal representative did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for further comment. In Sunday’s Instagram post, he wrote that reporting the assault in Ghana “would have been problematic at best — dangerous at worst,” given the country’s broader attitudes towards LGBTQ people. In February, Ghana’s parliament passed a controversial bill that criminalizes LGBTQ relationships and those who support LGBTQ rights.

Wiley rose to international fame in 2017, when he was chosen to paint Obama’s official portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The result was a vibrant depiction of the 44th president against a backdrop of green foliage and symbolic flowers.

Before that, the Yale University-trained painter had already built a career in portraiture and sculpture, depicting Black people posed in the style of Old Master paintings to bold, ornate effect.

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