The official presidential portraits of Barack Obama and former first lady, Michelle Obama, which were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery Feb. 12, highlight African American history and excellence, while offering a glimpse into the complexities associated with being both Black and American.
As the first African American couple to be featured in the official presidential collection housed at the National Portrait Gallery, the Obamas continue to make history over a year after they left the White House. What makes these portraits even more groundbreaking is that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, who painted the portraits, are the first Black artists whose works are featured in the presidential collection. While most official presidential portrait reveals have become “a little more than ceremonial routine”, according to a New York Times article, this historic debut showcasing the former first couple in all their Blackness, painted by Black artists, is far from ordinary. It’s Black, political excellence, refocused, revealing the likeness of two complex figures.
Having been showcased in the Portrait Gallery exhibit, Recognize, which featured Hip Hop musicians in urban clothing, painted against baroque backdrops in poses and settings reminiscent of famed Renaissance paintings, Wiley fans may not be surprised by the juxtaposition in his most recent work of Obama. Yet for both Wiley devotees and newcomers, the contrast captured in the portrait of Obama is captivating and telling of his experience and complexities as the first African American to serve as president.
Wiley’s portrait of Obama in a casual, collapsed pose, and semi-casual attire, sporting a dark suit and open collar, is in reference to his traditional style of showcasing his muses appearing to be in their element, even though in this case the subject is a former president. In contrast to the casualness of the pose and attire, Obama sits in a throne-like chair, seemingly suggesting the power in which he held as former leader of the Free World. The chair, not grounded, floats against an ornate, floral backdrop, yet the president’s body language suggests his presidency was anything but relaxing frolic in the garden. Instead Obama looks as if he’s tense, in deep thought, listening intently, and preparing for action.
Indicative of the Black American experience, Obama’s portrait shows the distinct dissonance associated with his presidency and as a man of color in the United States- unable to relax, always ready, having to rise above the dirt (like his floating chair), and still appear bright and beautiful like the floral scene surrounding him.
Sherald, the Baltimore-based artist who painted the former first lady’s portrait, captured Black Girl Magic in all its conflicting glory.
“The paintings I create…aspire to have a message of humanity,” said Sherald in reference to her portrait of former first lady, according to a tweet from the National Portrait Gallery the day of the unveiling.
In contrast to her husband’s casual attire in the Wiley portrait, Mrs. Obama is featured in a ball gown. The gown in itself is a contradiction and suggestion of race relations, featuring the work of white fashion designer, Michelle Smith. With an all white base, the dress is spattered with dark shapes and patches of color that are reminiscent of African textiles, indicative of Mrs. Obama’s experience as the first African American first lady, a role held until 2009, by only White women. In addition, the dress perhaps pinpoints the former first lady’s overall life experience as one of the few Black women in positions of power, in a White world.
With a light-blue backdrop, Mrs. Obama’s strong skin stands out, yet her face itself almost fades into the portrait. A Sherald signature, Mrs. Obama’s ashen, grayish skin color, versus her actual brown complexion, identifies the generalization of Black women and their experiences. Further the highlight on her gown and body parts, as opposed to her face, is also reminiscent on the attention given to Mrs. Obama’s fashion choices while first lady, particularly in reference to the flack she received when showing off her toned arms.
Though regally donned, Mrs. Obama’s facial expression looks like she’s headed to anywhere but a ball. Her body language, similarly to her husband’s, is that of a person who is waiting for someone to give them a hard time. While there’s an undertone of slight concern on her face, the former first lady’s pose, with her fist on her chin, looks like someone who is confident and will not back down from battle. The battle is racial and gender inequities that the former first lady fought while her husband was in office, and continues to address even post her role as first lady of the United States.
Acknowledging the historic nature of her portrait, as well as the underlying messages featured in the work, Mrs. Obama said, “I am humbled. I am honored. I am proud. But most of all, I’m grateful for all the people that came before me in this journey,” according to a tweet from the National Portrait Gallery, during the unveiling ceremony.
In the case of both paintings, many reacted with an understanding of the power that each portrait held politically, historically, and racially.
Film director Ava Duvernay, tweeted the portraits, calling them “Monday morning joy” and that it reminded her “to hope”.
Mr. Obama’s portrait will hang long-term among his presidential peers in the exhibit, Presidential Portraits, on the second floor of the National Portrait Gallery. Mrs. Obama’s portrait is part of a temporary exhibit on the first floor that showcases new works.