The Obama Portraits: A lens of dignity and boldness

obamasFormer U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama’s official portraits made their debut February 12, 2018 and I am so elated about their stay (Michelle Obama’s will be on display only until November) at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery. My excitement comes for several reasons:

  1. The portraits are exciting a bold departure from the more traditional portraits of U.S. presidents and first ladies. I mean, can we talk about the colors that pop in Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Obama? The floral background creates a juxtaposition or shall I say a soft reminder of our vulnerability. The sensation of softness is apparent in the way Obama pops out from the foliage with a concerned and contemplative face yet a strong poster. He seems like he’s asking us something deep about his presidency, our legacy and our agency.
  2. The pieces are provocative and iconic. After being intrigued by the colors and larger than life posturings of both Barack and Michelle Obama, I began to analyze the artists’ depictions and styles of both former White House residents. I noticed a disparaging thought filled with an all-to-familiar doubt, does this belong? Yes, I can admit it, I asked if two amazing pieces of art of the first African American presidential couple of the United States belonged. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to question the existence of those who choose to be and celebrate themselves in spaces that have closed the door on them. Though it was only for a split second followed by a strong yes “this” belongs, we belong, it is important to note why such portraits of the emblematic couple are important. We should be expanding our narrative and making room for new bold visions. Both portraits invite me to explore the two subjects, to question, to resolve and to admire. These points bring me to the third reason why I love the pieces.
  3. They are painted by two powerful African American artists, Wiley Kehinde and Amy Shepard. Both Kehinde and Shepard are the first African American artists to be commissioned to paint a portrait of a U.S. President and First lady in the National Portrait Gallery. What joy it is to basque at this moment and celebrate it!

The addition of these portraits and their departure, shall I say expansion into a vast frontier different than the traditional portraits, is symbolic of the direction we are exploring and will hopefully continue to explore. I feel we are on a movement that brings dignity to and welcomes differing interpretations and experiences. Art is so important in how it creates this narrative and I hope it pushes us to soon see such portraits like those of the Obamas and the artists who painted them not necessarily as bold but as renderings of individuals with the gumption to create freely.

While I am an artist and love consuming art and analyzing its beauty and social and political importance I am not yet an expert on providing critiques. So I share some thoughtful quotes and articles on the portraits and artists below.

About Amy Sherald:

“The selection of Ms. Sherald, who typically depicts African-Americans doing everyday things — two women in bathing suits, a man holding a child — has historical significance. “It’s as if she’s saying, ‘Let’s be clear: the President and I are African Americans and proudly so,” Mr. Staiti said, “and these portraits are going to have an African-American vibe — they’re going to break out of that rather staid tradition. I think it’s important and I think it’s political,” he added, referring to Mrs. Obama’s choice.”

About Wiley Kehinde:

“What I was always struck by whenever I saw [Wiley’s] portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege,” Obama said at the gallery on Monday.


He became “keenly aware of the signifiers of power, the implications of the traditional portrait, which are about privilege, power, elitism,” said Eugenie Tsai, curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s 2015 midcareer survey of Mr. Wiley’s work. “He was looking at a world that he was not included in.”

The present debut is strikingly different. Not only are the Obamas the first African-American presidential couple to be enshrined in the collection. The painters they’ve picked to portray them — Kehinde Wiley, for Mr. Obama’s portrait; Amy Sherald, for Mrs. Obama — are African-American as well. Both artists have addressed the politics of race consistently in their past work, and both have done so in subtly savvy ways in these new commissions. Mr. Wiley depicts Mr. Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker. Ms. Sherald’s image of Mrs. Obama overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool.


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