WASHINGTON, DC—There are many ways to define and depict power. When President Obama’s portrait was unveiled Monday, it was a reminder that leadership, command, and influence, can be inspiring and reassuring, powerful and black. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of the former president artfully captures the man and the symbol. The image of the first African American President of the United States is engaging, thoughtful, and contemporary and reflects both the artist’s well-established aesthetic and the persona Americans came to see and experience over Obama’s eight years in office.

The President’s portrait was revealed at the National Portrait Gallery Feb. 12. The grand event also included the presentation of First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait, which was painted by Amy Sherald. Hundreds were invited to the Smithsonian museum’s light-filled, glass-ceiling courtyard to get a first look at the Obama portraits. It was the couple’s first major Washington event since leaving the White House in January 2017.

Last fall, the museum announced that the Obamas selected Wiley and Sherald to paint their portraits. Since then, anticipation has been high among those eager to see how the depictions would be rendered. How would the relatively young contemporary artists respond to the opportunity to make an official portrait of the historic and pivotal figures?

For many, the occasion to see and hear from the Obamas surpassed the fascination with the paintings. There was a real nostalgia for the promise of hope and change, the black excellence and dignified leadership they represented for the nation and to the world. For a moment on Monday morning, gathered in a cathedral-like space, the days of grace returned and the ease with which the Obamas connect with the American people was on full display. It showed in the warm rapport they developed with the artists and the enthusiastic reception they received from the audience.

For a moment on Monday morning, gathered in a cathedral-like space, the days of grace returned and the ease with which the Obamas connect with the American people was on full display.

The room was largely a mix of family, friends, art world figures, and Washington politicos. Obama Administration officials and major museum directors, were among the attendees. Lonnie Bunch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Franklin Sirmans of the Perez Art Museum Miami, and Christopher Bedford of the Baltimore Museum of Art, were present.

Vice President Joe Biden was right up front. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Chief Strategist David Axelrod, and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett were there, too. Obama’s official White House photographer Pete Souza documented the ceremony, which was hosted by the David J. Skorton, head of the Smithsonian, and Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery.

 


First Lady Michelle Obama and Amy Sherald reveal portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2018. | © 2018 Chuck Kennedy, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 

MRS. OBAMA’S PORTRAIT was presented first. Sherald joined her to reveal the painting and the connection between the two was immediately apparent. They walked hand-in-hand across the stage to the large-scale canvas. When they uncovered the portrait, Mrs. Obama stood back clasping her hands together tightly below her chin. She smiled wide, looking pleased with what she saw and proud of Sherald for creating it.

The portrait depicts the First Lady seated wearing a shoulder- and arm-baring white gown with a voluminous skirt defined by a bold art-inspired print. The dress is by Milly. The background is Robin’s Egg blue. And her skin is painted in gray-scale, a technique consistent throughout Sherald’s body of work—a nod to photography meant to emphasize the individuality and humanity of her subjects, rather than their race.

At the podium, before delivering her remarks, Mrs. Obama turned back toward the painting for a second look. “Let’s just start by saying, Wow,” she said. “Take a minute. Wow.”

She then paid a gracious tribute to her mother, Marian Robinson, who was in the front row, and her late father, Frazier Robinson III, and the many ancestors who came before her making it possible for her live the life that she has. “I have to tell you that as I stand here today with all of you and look at this amazing portrait that will hang among so many iconic figures, I am a little overwhelmed to say the least…,” Mrs. Obama said.

“I have to tell you that as I stand here today with all of you and look at this amazing portrait that will hang among so many iconic figures, I am a little overwhelmed to say the least.” — First Lady Michelle Obama

“I am also thinking of 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.”

 


AMY SHERALD, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” 2018 (oil on linen). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Lead donors for Obama Portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia

 

MORE THAN A YEAR AGO, the selection of artists considered for the Obama portraits was narrowed and the final group of candidates was interviewed by the couple in the Oval Office under the auspices that they might be chosen to paint either one of them.

Baltimore-based Sherald was recently named the recipient of the 2018 David C. Driskell Prize by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and a solo exhibition of her work opens in May at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. She landed in the pool of artists considered for the portrait commissions because she won the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition—the first woman and first African American to do so.

Before Sherald even met with the Obamas, Mrs. Obama said she was “intrigued” by the artist and really struck by her work. “I was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter,” she said in her remarks. “I was wondering, ‘Who is this woman?’ And she’s so cute, too. Then she walked in and she was fly and poised and I just wanted to stare at her for a minute. She had this lightness and freshness of personality. She was hip and cool in that totally expected, unexpected kind of way.”

In the Oval Office, Sherald said she was honored to meet the President and humbled to be considered to paint his portrait. But then she turned to the First Lady and said she was really hoping that the two of them could work together. After that moment, Mrs. Obama said, “I knew she was the one for me.”

The artist and future subject immediately realized an easy affinity for one another. “We started talking and Barack kind of faded into the woodwork. There was an instant connection. That kind of sister-girl connection that I have with this woman and that was true all the way through the process, which is a good thing, because when someone is doing your portrait, they spend hours staring at you,” Mrs. Obama said.

“It’s very intimate, the experience. So you have to trust the person and feel comfortable enough to let yourself go and Amy made that possible for me. We had that connection.”

Citing her remarkable poise and grace, Mrs. Obama introduced Sherald. She called the artist a woman of extraordinary talent, strength and character. “It was a total joy to work with you Amy. I am so pleased and honored and proud of you. It is my honor to introduce Amy to all of you today. The woman who created this beautiful portrait,” she said.

 


First Lady Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald after unveiling the portrait. | © 2018 Chuck Kennedy, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 

SHERALD CAME TO THE PODIUM and they hugged tightly, rocking side-to-side as they embraced. While Mrs. Obama’s speech focused on their connection and comfort with one another, Sherald’s remarks concentrated on her work, explaining that her paintings are conceptual and symbolic and that what the First Lady represents, pride and insistence on being her authentic self, seamlessly aligns with the goals of her practice.

“Mrs. Obama, I want to begin by saying, “Thank you. Thank you for seeing my vision and being a part of my vision,'” Sherald said.

The artist recognized the First Lady as a style icon idolized by ordinary American women, and realized what she is wearing in the portrait matters. Milly is an American brand. The clothes are expensive (dresses range from $500-$1,000), but not out of reach for middle-income consumers.

Sherald shed some light on the visual significance of the dress in the painting. She said the geometric abstract print reminded her of Mondrian’s work and the graphic designs found in the quilts made by African American women from Gee’s Bend, Ala.

Referencing a quote by Deborah Willis, in which the photographer and art historian said Mrs. Obama engaged the imagination of a new generation of creatives documenting the “commanding role” she has played in American visual culture, Sherald spoke directly to the First Lady. “We can see ourselves in you,” she said.

“The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us because what you represent to this country is an ideal—a human being with integrity, intellect, confidence, and compassion. And the paintings I create aspire to express these attributes, a message of humanity. And I like to think they hold the same possibilities of being read universally.”

In conclusion, Sherald said, “I will always be grateful for this enormous opportunity to work with you.”

“The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us because what you represent to this country is an ideal—a human being with integrity, intellect, confidence, and compassion.” — Amy Sherald


KEHINDE WILEY, “Barack Obama,” 2018 (oil on canvas). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Lead support for the Obama Portraits was provided by: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley

 

THEN IT WAS TIME for the big reveal—the presentation of President Obama’s official portrait. Stationed on either side of the enormous painting, Mr. Obama and Wiley unveiled the portrait together. Upon seeing it, the President stood back to admire the image. He smiled with approval, feigned taking a selfie with it, gave Wiley the black man handshake and embrace, then went to the podium to make his remarks. “How about that? Pretty sharp,” he said.

Obama thanked his many former staff members for taking the time to come to the ceremony. “We miss you,” he said. In response, nearly the entire audience, not just the former staffers, said, “We miss you, too.” It is surprising that it is inaudible in video. Live in the room, the wistful sentiment amplified throughout the courtyard.

He continued on, talking about the portrait and what about Wiley and his work made him the right artist for the assignment. Based in Brooklyn, he is known for reimagining historic paintings of European gentry by replacing their subjects with ordinary young men of color—people he spots on the streets of Harlem and urban cities around the world—portraying them in dramatic poses against densely patterned backgrounds.

Wiley’s work is in the collections of major museums and “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” a 10-year retrospective organized by the Brooklyn Museum, traveled to six additional museums between 2015 and 2017. His most recent exhibition featured a new series of maritime paintings and his first three-channel film at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London last month.

 


President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, are unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12, 2018. | © Smithsonian Institution, Video by Fluent Visual

 

BORN IN SOUTH CENTRAL Los Angeles, like the President, Wiley was raised by a single mother. Both have American mothers and grew up with their African fathers absent from their lives. “In many ways our journeys involved searching for them and figuring out what that meant. I ended up writing about that journey and channeling it into the work that I did, because I cannot paint. I am sure that Kehinde reflected some of those feelings in his art,” Mr. Obama said.

For the President’s portrait, Wiley situated him leafy green botanical environment. He is seated, wearing a well-tailored suit with no tie. He is indeed “pretty sharp.” Gazing directly at the viewer, his expression is contemplative. He is a consequential world leader; He is your jazz-loving favorite uncle.

“What I was always struck by whenever 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 on a grand scale and force us to look and see them in ways that so often they were not,” Obama said about what drew him to Wiley’s work.

“What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege…”
— President Obama


At the unveiling ceremony President Obama give remarks about his portrait and Kehinde Wiley, the artist who painted it. | © 2018 Chuck Kennedy, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 

“People in our families. People who helped to build this country. People who helped build this capital. People who to this day are making sure this place is clean at night and serving food and taking out the garbage and doing all the other stuff that makes this country work, so often out of sight and out of mind.”

He continued: “Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform and said they belonged at the center of American life. And that was something that moved me deeply because in my small way that’s part of what I believe politics should be about, is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up.”

When the two met in the Oval Office, they bonded over the work as well as their biographies. The President countered his remarks about the gravity of Wiley’s work and more light-hearted ones. For the unveiling, Wiley’s selection of a navy blue suit with an abstracted window-pane pattern was unusually understated. Referring to the artist’s penchant custom-made suits in bold colors and prints, Obama joked that they “make different sartorial decisions.”

Mr. Obama said Wiley’s assignment must have been more challenging than Sherald’s since his subject wasn’t as “fly” and didn’t have the same “hotness” as hers, referring to his wife. He also said he was “extraordinarily excited” about the collaboration with Wiley.

“Working with Kehinde was a great joy. He and his team made it easy. Kehinde, in the tradition of a lot of great artists, actually cared to hear how I thought about it before doing exactly what he intended to do,” he said. This quip elicited laughter from the audience. Then the President brought Kehinde to the podium.

 


President Barack Obama embraces artist Kehinde Wiley after unveiling of portrait. | © 2018 Pete Souza, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 

THE ARTIST SPOKE ELOQUENTLY with no notes. He said his life was driven by chance—both the circumstances that landed him where he was standing at that moment and the method he usually uses to find his subjects, complete strangers randomly spotted on the street.

“It’s tough in the streets to get people to recognize what the import or the gravity of what art is. My job has been to slowly take these moments of chance and to try to weave them into something that means something in the language of art history,” said Wiley.

“Big museums like this are dedicated to what we as a society hold most dear. Great curators their jobs are to be the guardians of culture, to say this is what we as a people stand for. 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. So as those years go on and as I try to create my own type of work, it had to do with correcting for some of that. Trying to find places where poeple who happen to look like me do feel accepted or do have the ability to express their state of grace on the grand narrative scale of museum space.”

“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. So as those years go on and as I try to create my own type of work, it had to do with correcting for some of that.”
— Kehinde Wiley

His grand portrait of President Obama evokes his personal story. Nestled within the leafy green backdrop are regional flowers that represent key aspects of his narrative. Blue African lilies reference Mr. Obama’s Kenyan heritage and Jasmine flowers symbolize his childhood in Hawaii where he was raised by his grandparents. Meanwhile, the chrysanthemum is the official flower of Chicago, where he met Mrs. Obama and got his start in politics.

Wiley said he was inspired by the President’s personal story which echoes his own. He described it as “a sense of twinning.”

In closing, he said: “Mr. President I thank you for giving me a chance, and I thank you for giving this nation a chance, to experience your splendor on a global scale.”

The artist made it back to his seat before he realized he forgot to acknowledge his mother, who was in the audience. Wiley returned to the mic and called her “the real source of the light.” He asked Freddie Mae Wiley to stand and tearfully thanked her. “She found a way to get paint,” he said. She had “the ability to be able to picture something bigger than that piece of South Central LA we were living in.”

When the unveiling ceremony concluded, I made my way toward the stage to get a closer look at the portraits and ran into Wiley’s mother. I asked her what she that of her son’s painting. She confirmed it was her first time seeing it and called it “God-inspired.”

 


Following the unveiling ceremony, featured from left, artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald; Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery; David J. Skorton, head of the Smithsonian; with First Lady Obama and President Obama. | © 2018 Chuck Kennedy, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 

DURING HIS TWO TERMS in the White House, President Obama supported arts programs and policies, and the Obamas regularly hosted cultural events. In the Oval Office, Mr. Obama displayed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., by Charles Alston. The Obamas also borrowed art from Washington museums by Glenn Ligon, William H. Johnson, and Alma Thomas, among others, to hang in their private residence. On the main floor, Mrs. Obama gave the Old Family Dining Room a refresh by introducing modern art, including “Resurrection” by Thomas. The 1966 painting is the first artwork by an African American woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House and enter the permanent collection.

These intentional and historic acts in White House are extended by the Obamas’s decision to select black artists to paint their portraits. Wiley and Sherald are the first African American artists to be commissioned for official portraits of a President and First Lady at the National Portrait Gallery.

Despite their historic roles in the nation and world, larger-than-life personas, and living for eight years within the trappings, perks, and privileged circumstances of the Presidential bubble, both Mr. and Mrs. Obama indicated in their remarks that having a portrait made in their likeness was an unimaginable. As far as they were aware, each the first in their families to experience the honor.

At a loss as to what to do when they learned about the portrait tradition, the Obamas consulted experts who had previously provided counsel on art-related matters—White House Curator Bill Allman, Interior Designer Michael Smith, and Golden of the Studio Museum, who sits on the board of the Obama Foundation. With museum curator Dorothy Moss, the trio helped the Obamas navigate the selection and commission process.

The artists were compensated for the portraits which are now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. The commissions were sponsored by dozens of donors, including Kate Capshow and Steven Spielberg, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and Eileen Harris Norton, who co-founded the Los Angeles nonprofit Art + Practice with Mark Bradford.

Mrs. Obama’s portrait is on temporary display in the New Acquisitions corridor of the museum. President Obama’s portrait officially integrated the American Presidents gallery, where it is on permanent view. Seeing Wiley’s colorful, imaginative, and contemporary image of Mr. Obama on display among the more staid and traditional depictions of his white predecessors is incredibly powerful.

“It is hard to obviously judge something that is a portrait of you,” Mr. Obama said. “But what I can say, unequivocally, is that I am in awe of Kehinde’s gifts and what he and Amy have given to this country and to the world and we are both very grateful to have been the subject of their intention for this brief moment.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: From left, Artist Kehinde Wiley, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Artist Amy Sherald, stand before newly unveiled portraits. | © 2018 Pete Souza, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 

BOOKSHELF
“Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” documents the artist’s 10-year survey. Amy Sherald won the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. This volume, “American Portraiture Today,” was released to complement the museum’s exhibition of the portraits. Two White House photographers recently published lavish volumes featuring images of the Obamas. “Obama an Intimate Portrait” is by Pete Souza and “Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer” is by Amanda Lucidon.

 


President Obama’s portrait was installed the day after the unveiling ceremony on Feb. 13, 2018. Installation view of KEHINDE WILEY, “Barack Obama,” 2018 (oil on canvas), in American Presidents Gallery, National Portrait Gallery. | Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 


First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait was installed the day after the unveiling ceremony on Feb. 13, 2018. Installation view of AMY SHERALD, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” 2018 (oil on linen), in New Acquisitions Gallery, National Portrait Gallery. | Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 

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