Barack & Michelle Obama Portraits: when Art, History and Politics converge

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The official portraits of former U.S. president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Monday. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

After much anticipation, the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on Monday, February 12th. As with most things that the Obamas do, this will be another first. The portraits of the First African American Presidential couple painted for the first time by two Black artists: Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

Ever since it was announced that Kehinde Wiley would be Barack Obama’s portraitist-in-chief, speculation has been rife as to how he would portray the former President. The artist is renowned for depicting young black men against a floral backdrop, in grandiose and royal postures, reminiscent of classical paintings of the 19th century.

The unveiled portrait sits halfway between the radically opposed styles of the two men: a demure and restrained Obama on one side and the bold and audacious Wiley on the other. There is no grandiose pose; instead, Mr. Obama is seated in a meditative and relaxed posture with his feet almost disappearing into the surrounding greenery of mixed flowers that evoke his personal story and his multicultural background. The composite of African Blue Lilies, Jasmine and chrysanthemums represent respectively Kenya (his Father’s country) Hawaii (his place of birth) and Chicago (the city where he found his calling and met his wife).

In a Facebook live interview with the New York Times, Kehinde Wiley later explained that he wanted to capture and bring to life the Former President’s “singular narrative,” a combination of “accessibility” “openness” and “radical presence”.

Meanwhile, Michelle Obama is shown in a gracious pose wearing a stylish dress featuring bold geometric patterns against a light blue background. As is customary in Ms. Sherald’s paintings, Ms. Obama skin is painted grey, and she later said she wanted to represent Ms. Obama’s “quiet and strong presence.”

By virtue of being trailblazers, the Obamas have often sought to create compelling narratives to send strong messages, inspire the younger generations and leave an enduring legacy. The handling of their portraiture was no different: from the choice of artists, to their demeanor and the choice of dress. Michelle Obama’s dress references the Quilts of Gee’s Bend created by women “who can trace their ancestry back to slaves.”

So at the unveiling ceremony, Art, History and Politics have converged to create a moment steeped in symbolism. Equal representation made further progress on the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the president who opposed slavery. And on that day, the portraits that visually break with the tradition of past presidential portraiture and feature the first black President and First Lady made their entry into the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Ms. Obama herself noted that she was “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”.

A quiet and yet strong call for hope….. Even when it’s about art, politics is never far away.

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