‘How about that? That’s pretty sharp.’ This was the immediate reaction from former US president Barack Obama on Monday during the unveiling of the Official Presidential Portraits of the Obamas, a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.
The official presidential portraits of the Obamas are striking and significant
Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley
The portrait was painted by the New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley celebrated in the contemporary art world for his bold portraits of street cast African-American men in clothing representing hip-hop culture, but posing in ways typical of European subjects in classical paintings by old-masters. His subjects are usually painted against bold, decorative backgrounds.
In his portrait of the former POTUS, Obama is portrayed sitting on a chair, arms folded with a direct gaze at the viewer. The background is a lush tapestry of plants growing all around him and including symbolic nods to the geography of his life. African blue lilies (agapanthus) grow out of the foliage to represent Obama’s Kenyan heritage, jasmine is included in reference to Hawaii, his place of birth, and chrysanthemums are present as the official flower of Chicago, the city where he began his political career and met his wife to be. Social media users have celebrated the painting for the vision of a new masculinity that it promotes through the use of botanicals.
Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald
Alongside the reveal of Barack Obama’s official portrait was the unveiling of a glamorous portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald. The contemporary artist was given complete creative freedom to portray her subject in the stylised realism she has become known for. Sherald paints life-sized representations of African-American people against colour field backgrounds, their skin rendered in her signature grayscale tones juxtaposed with the vibrant colours of their modern clothing.
In her official portrait Michelle Obama wears a dress by American designer Michelle Smith of the label Milly. It’s based on a dress from her Spring 2017 collection. The designer says on her website, ‘It’s up to Mrs Obama to say why she chose this for the portrait, but I would say that it’s a very modern, emotional dress with a very womanly, very American spirit. The dress also reveals her arms, which I believe is groundbreaking and very modern for a portrait of the first lady.’
African-American artists make history
It’s usually the privilege of the first family to choose their portraitists. Besides being a contemporary decision for a thoroughly stylish and contemporary couple, the Obamas’ choice is significant and historical in that they chose African-American artists known for their representations of black people and the politics of race in their work. At the unveiling Wiley told the press, ‘Growing up as a kid in south-central Los Angeles, going to the museums in LA, there weren’t too many people who happened to look like me in those museums, on those walls … the ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American President of the United States is absolutely overwhelming.’
Michelle Obama echoed his sentiment when she said, ‘As you may have guessed, I don’t think there is anybody in my family who has ever had a portrait done. Let alone a portrait that will be hanging in the National Gallery.’