Barack and Michelle Obama’s official presidential portraits were unveiled today and love or hate the art, the cultural impact of the moment is undeniable.
The Obamas (and even their daughters, Sasha and Malia, are no strangers to being first for obvious reasons. Being the first Black couple to be U.S. President and First Lady allowed them to also break the dam for a cascade of other African Americans in the West Wing. Continuing in the “firsts” tradition, it’s befitting that the Obamas would bestow two Black artists with their own firsts.
Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are now the first Black artists to create official presidential portraits for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Wiley is best known for his paintings that feature contemporary, Black, urban subjects in what has typically been traditional, white, classical settings while Sherald is known for her portraits of Black subjects.
President Obama’s Black Cool
For President Obama’s portrait, Wiley has the former president wearing a dark suit, a crisp white shirt, and no tie. The 44th President has a somewhat stern expression as he sits in a wooden chair surrounded by a lush, leafy green background. He looks cool, a little casual, but about his business. As a Black man in the Oval Office, President Obama very much fits Wiley’s theme of placing Black people in previously exclusively white spaces.
“That’s pretty sharp,” Mr. Obama noted at the portrait unveiling. “I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow (him) to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”
A Picture of Grace
Mrs. Obama’s portrait was created by Amy Sherald. The Baltimore artist is known for using her work as social justice commentary. She often paints Black people in gray tones, concerning herself more with tone and shape than realism.
The portrait of Mrs. Obama fits right in to Sherald’s portfolio. In the portrait, a gray-hued Michelle Obama is sitting down wearing a floor length white gown that has pops of color in geometric shapes. Her hair, flowing in soft loose waves, is parted down the middle. Her right hand rests under her chin as if she is regarding the viewers of her portrait in a confident gaze.
Upon viewing the portrait for the first time at the unveiling, Mrs. Obama noted the impact such a painting would have on girls, particularly girls of color.
“They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution … And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls,” she said.
Sherald also took time to reflect on the importance of the moment. “Mrs. Obama, you are omnipresent. You exist in our minds and hearts because we can see ourselves in you,” Sherald said at the unveiling event.
Cruel racists harangued Mrs. Obama the entire time she was in the White House comparing her to an animal, questioning her gender, and some even had the nerve to deem this beautiful woman as ugly.
Having Mrs. Obama’s likeness in elegant repose for the portrait is appropriate and befitting for the grace and class she has always exhibited in her public life, no matter how dirty her detractors get. Little Black girls in Chicago can see themselves in her and know that they do not have to restrict their lives to the low expectations of other people.
For the Culture
One of the reasons diversity in general is important is because it brings forward different perspectives and experiences, which in turn helps to nurture richer and more robust ideas and actions. To have Wiley and Sherald’s work in the National Portrait Gallery literally offers a different perspective on the public lives of America’s first Black President and First Lady.
It is an accomplishment for any artist to have their work included in the National Portrait Gallery, but it should be noted that, for Black people, this is not validation of Wiley and Sherald’s work. We don’t need a stamp of inclusion in white spaces to acknowledge creativity and talent. We applaud their continued success and we hope that their stories and their work continue to inspire the next generation of great artists.
Not everyone is a fan of the new portraits and that’s okay. What’s most important is that Wiley and Sherald have a platform and the resources to create Black art, which has always been a critical aspect of honoring and representing culture. Who better to showcase us than ourselves?