In 1961, icon of Modern Liberalism Robert F. Kennedy predicted a black man could become President of the United States. At the time, these words slapped up against the status quo and challenged inherited ideas that white privilege would forever prevail in oppressing equal rights to representation. Beyond the complex ways America’s visions for an equitable society have evolved and devolved since, no one could predict just how powerful a Black presidency would actually be—let alone the magnitude of the aftershocks it would provoke in its wake.
This month, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery unveiled two commissioned portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. This ceremony, like most involving the Obamas, marked a celebration of historical firsts—in addition to Mr. Obama being the first African American represented in the presidential portrait collection, Sherald and Wiley are the first African American artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to render these prestigious portraits. While much can be said about how the Obama era laid the groundwork for this art historical moment, these portraits tell us as much about the leaders depicted, as they do about the American public to whom they were unveiled. Michelle Obama herself recognized the Faustian gift she and Barack had placed in the hands of these two artists. As Sherald recounted, “Michelle was like, ‘I’m really sorry. We’re giving you an opportunity, and handing you to the wolves at the same time.” 1
Both Sherald and Wiley use color as a political and perceptual device to implode the tradition of presidential portraits as monosyllabic representations of power, persona, and poise. In its place, a new paradigm emerges in which contemporary art animates history by depicting its makers in their full magnetism, and contemporary artists assert themselves as empowered co-authors of history. Let’s recall the very mission upon which the National Portrait Gallery was established, only one year after Kennedy’s famous words: “to tell the American story through the individuals who have shaped it.” It is with this founding principle in mind that one can most fully grasp the gravity of this new chapter—not only are African Americans claiming and articulating our rightful place in the story of this country, but we too are inventing the visual language through which the story of American progress is written.
Kehinde Wiley has made a prolific career of subverting what he terms the “signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic, and the sublime.” Centering African-American subjects from all walks of life—in postures of power and within vibrant, culturally adorned canvases—Wiley uproots popular understandings of subjectivity and objectivity within traditions of portraiture. In this markedly metaphysical work, Wiley situates Obama on a chair enveloped by his ancestral flora, with fronds that both illuminate and obscure his figure. In this interplay between background and foreground, Wiley simultaneously anchors Obama to his Kenyan, Hawaiian and Chicagoan roots, and frees him of the numerous labels and stereotypes placed upon him, an act of equal parts affirmation and liberation. Multiple aspects of Obama’s identity merge in harmony—the fearless, the soft, the quirky, and the stern—dismantling the trope that presidential portraits need to reify hyper-masculinity and dilute the many other facets of identity. Most potent for me is the fact that, in isolation, Barack Obama’s portrait is just as gripping a representation of an individual as it is a remarkably stark contrast to many of the presidential portraits that precede it.
Amy Sherald puts forth her own distinct approach to portraiture that sheds photorealism and laws of similitude to cast her subjects in a bold new light—one that, in fact, emanates from within. She foregrounds the inner dynamism of her subjects by rendering them at a larger-than-life scale, armed with props that help to tell their story. In the case of Michelle Obama, the prop is the eclectic Milly gown, which, for the artist, is a narrative cue equally important as the expression on Obama’s face. Like all of Sherald’s works, this portrait demands time be spent with it, as details progressively emerge that beg further investigation—the grayscale of Obama’s skin, the patina of her eyes, the purple of her nails, and the many messages folded within the expanse of her dress. With time and thanks to the meditative space forged by the monochromatic, ethereal background, conceptual layers emerge atop the more tactile ones, such as the subtlety of Obama’s strength, and her comfort within her skin. Sherald elects to project an infinite vision of Obama that has yet to take shape in the public’s perception, a controversial choice that has confounded those expecting a “likeness” to popular media portrayals already in circulation. In my conversation with Sherald, she describes her decision to forgo a smiling portrait;
It’s really interesting to me that we still can't see ourselves without seeing race—we have a limited imagination of how we can express ourselves, and who we are. I feel as though [some people] really wanted a glamour shot of Michelle. And—even though she is beautiful and fancy—that's just not who she is! I don't see her as a frivolous personality. From our conversations, I knew that I wanted her to look relaxed, as if we caught her gaze in a contemplative moment. I wanted her grace to shine through, and the great sense of power and energy about her that you can literally feel.”
And it's true—as one of the most photographed women in history—the cameras have only managed to capture the most visible and lovable sides of Obama. However, this portrait evokes more than what meets the eye alone, and is delivered by Sherald with the same compassionate intellect that Obama herself is known for.
These phenomenal portraits of Michelle and Barack strive for, and achieve, a great deal: they insert intersectionality into the practice of institutionalized portrait painting; they uphold the qualities of a masterful work of art by capturing the essence and aura of these remarkable individuals; they revive American cultural traditions to be more reflective and inclusive of all America; and they irrevocably embed “color” within the White House and the white cube. Yet, propelled by this moment in history, they also move beyond the creative act of rendering visible the invisible on an individual level. They speak to a collective dream held by people of color to see ourselves—in all our complexity, power, and particularity—reflected in our institutions. And the pride, emotion, confusion, shock, conversation, fear and hope they evoke in their viewers is nothing short of a slap to the canon of the art historical portrait itself.
- Conversation with the artist, Thursday, February 22nd, 2018. She also said, “I’m not really sure what I was expecting I was just surprised at the vitriol…And everyone who likes the painting feels like they need to let me know where they stand politically before they pay me the compliment—they can't just say, ‘I really like that painting.’”