For years, the official paintings of the USA’s former Commander-in-Chief’s at the National Portrait Gallery comprised white presidents painted by white artists. It comes as no surprise, then, that the official unveiling of the presidential portraits is usually quite a conventional affair. But not this year – former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s unveiling on Monday the 12th of February showed the world the first ever black president and first lady painted by black artists. Amy Sherald did Ms. Obama’s portrait, and Kehinde Wiley painted the former president. Although the paintings are both exquisite to look at, the Obamas’ choice was not simply an aesthetic one.
Unsurprisingly, the portraits elicited strong reactions and controversy for their striking colours and unusual backgrounds. They were said to be too abstract, too modern. Obama’s informal body language (and tie-less collar) was said to be disrespectful. The family was accused of breaking important traditions and affirmations of power and refinement that the Gallery represents. But as the Obamas have shown time and time again, an audience that wants to see a traditional First family will be taken by surprise by the Obamas’ choices and actions. These portraits reveal the Obamas taking a stance, as they have always managed to do powerfully and gracefully, underscoring the distinctive authenticity they represented during Mr. Obama’s terms.
By choosing to portray Mr. Obama outside of his office, the focus shifts to the president’s character and his story beyond (and before) his executive role as president. By choosing two artists who always work around themes of social justice and representation, the Obamas’ showed political action and vision even after leaving the White House.
Wiley and Sherald are the first African-American artists whose works are on display in the Gallery. Both paintings symbolise the Obamas’ African heritage, be it visible in the prints on Ms. Obama’s dress or in the Kenyan flowers displayed in Mr. Obama’s background. By choosing two black artists, the Obamas sent a strong message to the nation that people of colour and paintings of people of colour belong – whether it is in the Oval Office or on museum walls.
QUOTE: “But, what I was always struck by whenever I saw his [Wiley’s] portraits, was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power, wealth, privilege and the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives, and put them on a grand stage,” he said. “The people in our families, people who built this country, built this capital, served food, took out the garbage.” – Former President Barack Obama at the unveiling of his portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Feb. 12, 2018.
The portraits are open to the public. Due to their momentum, the National Portrait Gallery is packed with people and long queues. The unveiling filled all social media outlets and news sources, making this one of the most covered and controversial portrait revelations ever. The Obamas sure know how to make lasting impressions. In a very different way, so do their successors.