RaceAhead: Why The Obama Portraits Matter

14 February, 2018, 18:14 | Author: Dustin Murphy
  • Kehinde Wiley's Saint Andrew

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled Monday, but not everyone was happy with what they saw.

The Obamas selected artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald for the paintings, which take their place in the National Portrait Gallery's collection of presidential portraits.

I originally was taken aback by the recent unveiling of the official portraits of the Obamas, to be displayed with the rest of the former Presidential and First Lady pictures in Washington.

The former president was painted by controversial artist Kehinde Wiley, who portrayed the president seated, with no necktie, on a wooden chair amidst green leaves and flowers.

Meanwhile, Michelle Obama's portait by Amy Sherald showed her wearing a colorful Monday Milly gown.

The article itself details Obama portrait artist Kehinde Wiley's past use of what the New York Times has described as "rich textile or wallpaper backgrounds whose patterns he has likened to abstractions of sperm".

The canvas on Kehinde Wiley's Saint Andrew
The canvas on Kehinde Wiley’s Saint Andrew

The former president said Mr Wiley was "working at a disadvantage because his subject was less becoming".

"I look pretty sharp", Barack said after seeing himself in art form.

"My real takeaway is that the portrait really does defer to this aura that Obama has, of both being very much a representative black man but also one who, with those wonderful hand gestures, has a side that is sensitive, that is empathetic, that is loving, that is caring". In a since-deleted tweet on this, Hannity wrote, "Obama's portrait - a stark contrast to predecessors with inappropriate sexual innuendo".

Like most of Sherald's work, her interpretation of Mrs. Obama is soft and nearly dreamlike (many have criticized Sherald's portrayal as having little resemblance to the first lady).

"I'm also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who ... will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution", she added. "She turned to me and said, 'I really hope that you and I can work together.' " That's when "Barack kind of faded into the woodwork", she recounted, and she and Sherald quickly bonded with "that kind of sista-girl connection" and trust a successful portrait requires. Indeed, the pose of Obama, who is seen in a dark suit with an open-collar shirt, sitting with his arms crossed and resting on his knees, recalls Robert Anderson's official 2008 portrait of George W. Bush, who is rendered in a similar, casual pose. Although the artists worked independently of each other, and their works aren't meant to be seen side by side (they will reside in different galleries when they go on view), they make a curious pairing. "I used the same cotton poplin and minimal, geometric print to create something more conservative and modern", she says.

"The more I look at it, the more I love it". Established artists don't need commissions; Mrs. Obama's selection of Sherald, however, will have a major impact on her career right when she needs it.



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