Unveiling the Official Portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama
By Nisan Igdem
Earlier this week, on 12th of February, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC unveiled the portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama, by Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, respectively. In the 50th year of the America’s President’s collection, the Obama’s portraits attracted a lot of attention for both their unusual style, and for their being the first-ever African-American couple in the collection.
Barrack Obama’s portrait by Kehinde Wiley features the former president sitting surrounded by greenery and flowers. The flowers are thoughtfully picked; chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago and symbolise Obama's origins in the city where he went to law school, and later became a politician; jasmines point to his childhood in Hawaii; and Africa blue lilies refer to his Kenyan Father. Wiley’s colourful style stands out amongst previous presidential portraits, deviating from the plain background and subdued colour palette that dominates the rest of the collection. Based in New York, Wiley is known for the enormous scale of his canvases and bright portraits of African Americans. His works include references to pop culture and art history, making them well-liked among the public.
Michelle Obama’s portrait is by Amy Sherald. It depicts the former first lady in front of a simple blue background with a glamourous dress that fills the canvas. Although the first lady portraits do tend to be more colourful than those of their husband’s, Sherald’s depiction of Obama, again, differs from the others with its vivid colours and modern forms. Amy Sherald is considered a rising star in the art world. In 2016, she became the first woman to win the National Portrait Gallery Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, and only earlier this month was awarded the High Museum’s David C. Driskell Prize.
While they artistically diverge from the other portraits in the collection, the Obama portraits carry a political significance. The unveiling of the presidential portraits has garnered far more media attention than it has done in the past for the simple but seminal reason that the Obamas are the first African-American couple in the White House and the collection. They have also chosen to work with African-American artists, who have a history of addressing racial politics in their work. Thus, the political significance of the Obamas as the first African-American couple in the White House is emphasised with the original artistic style of the artworks.
The month of February in the United States is considered Black History Month, making their unveiling on the 12th of February a fitting and significant choice. As they stand out both in style and what they represent for American history, the portraits will draw more attention to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, and will hopefully encourage important discussions of racial politics.
Also - Check out our previous article on Barack Obama's portraitist, Kehinde Wiley, here.
Alex Greenberger, ‘Behold the Official Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama’, ArtNews, 12 Feb 2018. (http://www.artnews.com/2018/02/12/portraits-barack-michelle-obama/)
‘America’s Presidents’, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Feb 2018. (https://americaspresidents.si.edu/gallery)
‘First Lady Portraits’, The White House Historical Association. (https://www.whitehousehistory.org/galleries/first-lady-portraits)
Holland Cotter, 'Obama Portraits Blend Paint and Politics, and Fact and Fiction’, New York Times, 12 Feb 2018. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/arts/design/obama-portrait.html)
Maya Rhodan, 'See the Newly Unveiled Official Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama’, Time, 13 February 2018. (http://time.com/5143747/obama-presidential-portrait-kehinde-wiley/)