Painting the Obamas

It was recently reported that the Obamas have selected the artists to paint their official portraits. The former president will be painted by the celebrity artist Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle Obama will be painted by the less famous (but by no means obscure) artist Amy Sherald. I cannot wait to see how these portraits turn out!

Barack & Michelle

I first became aware of Kehinde Wiley in 2009 when I visited the Baroque galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The museum was experimenting with using asynchronous displays around the museum. The idea, I suppose, is to engage viewers with the unexpected. So there was Santos Dumont—The Father of Aviation II (2009), a painting of two Brazilian men in contemporary dress, among the silks and brocades of Baroque Europe. You cannot help but notice the surprising similarities between Wiley’s painting and its Baroque neighbors: it is large with a focus on naturalistic human figures, the painting style is bright and bold and crisp, and there are contrived twists and contortions that add to the appeal of the image. Since then Wiley has become a superstar of the art world. Some of his most famous paintings like Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps at the Brooklyn Museum and After Memling’s Portrait of a Man with a Coin of the Emperor Nero place ordinary men—ordinary African-American men—into what are essentially replicas of famous European paintings. By doing this, he has said, he is allowing ordinary African-American men to inhabit the “field of power” that the historical paintings represent. The flip side, of course, is that by celebrating these fields of power—one could argue—he is reinforcing their power. In any case, his paintings are powerful and striking and thought provoking. I’m curious to see how he’ll handle the more tricky task of painting someone who is already quite powerful. I’m sure Wiley will rise to the challenge and give us something that captures something of the complexity of Barack Obama’s identity as a man and as a public figure—as a symbol.

Amy Sherald will be painting Michelle Obama’s portrait. I first became aware of Sherald  when writing about her work in the exhibition at the US embassy in Dakar, Senegal. Her work is just as visually striking as Wiley’s, to my eye. Like Wiley, she is known for portraits that center the experiences of people of color. I love her bold use of color and the quiet yet powerful figures who populate those fields of color. The work that I wrote about was Equilibrium (2009), in which a woman stands against a bright red background, seeming to float as if with no real spatial context. She seems neither to look out at the viewer nor to look away. In a statement about this painting that was published in the exhibition catalogue, Sherald said, “When I began this painting I had been thinking about certain aspects of cultural identity. My own being a southern perspective from my upbringing in the Deep South. I consider myself a ‘global southerner’ having discovered pieces of my own American southern identity and culture in the faces and traditions of Africa. I am often challenged with the pre-set paradigms. At times embracing the off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds and walk the line in a search for a source of equilibrium.” There’s a certain moodiness and stylistic tension in her work that keeps me looking, and I cannot wait to see Michelle Obama inhabiting her world.

We’ve certainly come a long way since the Lansdowne Portrait, haven’t we?

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington (The Lansdowne Portrait), 1796



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