Presidential portraits tend to have a sort of staid dignity to them. Until Barack Obama, they’ve also all been of white men. There’s Ronald Reagan with coiffed hair, smiling his actor smile in front of a stately column. There’s Bill Clinton in a light blue tie, with an expression that reads a bit uneasy. There’s George W. Bush in another blue tie, looking off into the distance while clutching the back of a fancy chair.
Portraits of first ladies? Same thing. Laura Bush in a taffeta gown, as if ready to attend a gala. Hillary Clinton fresh-faced and very ’90s in a black pantsuit with short hair. The artwork isn’t one bit fresh or experimental.
Then, along came Kehinde Wiley, a 40-year-old artist with a history of subverting those same staid ideas of masculinity, race, and power, who is known for painting Black men and women in heroic postures. Borrowing from the Old Masters, he recasts Black men as figures like Napoleon, riding high on a white horse as he commands his army. (See: 2005’s “Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps.”)
“What I was struck by when I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and 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,” President Barack Obama said of why he chose Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which along with first lady Michelle’s was unveiled Monday at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us,” Wiley has said about his work.
It seems it’s Wiley’s life calling to depict Barack Obama for this occasion. Wiley, a queer artist, is also the first African-American to execute an official presidential portrait for the gallery’s collection.
In 2012, Wiley told BBC News: “The reality of Barack Obama being the president of the United States — quite possibly the most powerful nation in the world — means that the image of power is completely new for an entire generation of not only Black American kids, but every population group in this nation.”
Wiley shows Obama as deep in thought, looking straight ahead with intensity as though working out a problem in his head. The facial expression is at once more complex and more realistic than that of his predecessors’ portraits, but the background is pure symbolic fantasy. Instead of the bookshelves, columns, and curtains meant to give other presidential portraits imperial gravitas, he sits amid greenery.
“I’m charting his path on Earth through those plants,” Wiley said at the unveiling. There’s “a fight going on between him in the foreground” and the plants in the background, which represent his past.
Each flower popping against the verdant backdrop has a meaning: The African blue lilies are for his father’s birthplace of Kenya; the jasmine represents his own birthplace, Hawaii; and the chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, remind us of where Obama got his start as a political organizer and met Michelle LaVaughn Robinson.
“We had an immediate connection with the two artists that are sitting here today,” Obama said, noting that despite sartorial differences (Wiley is fond of suits in bright colors and prints like paisley and plaid) they have a lot in common: Both had American mothers who gave “extraordinary love and support,” and African fathers who were absent from their lives. Wiley’s father was from Nigeria, and the artist did not grow up with him, although he visited Nigeria to reconnect with him back in 1997.
For her own painting, Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald, a Baltimore-based artist with a small profile compared to that of Wiley. Sherald’s work focuses on social justice issues around race and identity in the U.S., and she paints her African-American subjects’ skin in grays — while using plenty of vibrant colors otherwise — as a way of challenging ideas of color and race. Seeing the poverty in Baltimore has inspired her to paint her subjects in environments that are different from their lifestyles.
Sherald painted Michelle sitting in a regal pose, wearing a ballgown with a geometric design.
“I’m…thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution. I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls,” Michelle Obama said of her portrait.
“Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love,” President Obama said.
The portraits are already affecting people in profound ways. In online culture magazine Into, writer Antwaun Sargent recalls when a mutual friend of his and Wiley’s sent him a photo of Obama being photographed for a “special project for the Smithsonian.” Sargent had a feeling he knew what it was really for.
“It was in that moment, I realized that Wiley would be painting Obama’s official portrait,” he writes. “Words can’t describe what I felt knowing that a Black queer male who has spent his career painting us into the frame of history would use his hands to paint for the nation, one of my hometown heroes. In that moment, the Black queer kid in me, who once poured over Wiley’s pictures because they showed men who are like me and who knocked on doors in the dead of a Chicago winter for then-Senate candidate Barack Obama, who opposed the Iraq War, felt seen.”
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