The National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama on Monday. The former president chose Brooklyn-based artist Kehinde Wiley to paint his portrait, and the former first lady chose Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald. The new works, on view at the museum starting tomorrow, are full of complex symbolism and bold choices. Here’s what the artists, the subjects and art historian Robert Hobbs had to say about the portraits.
Many portraits show the subject staring vaguely into the middle distance. Not so for these two likenesses, which seem to look directly at you. “I find both of them tremendously engaged with the viewer,” Hobbs told Express. Both portraits are also life-size, which further enhances the sense that you’re really seeing and connecting with the Obamas.
The lush background symbolizes former President Obama’s personal story: jasmine represents his birthplace of Hawaii, African blue lilies express his father’s Kenyan heritage and chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago. “There’s a fight between him and his plants in the foreground. Who gets to be the star of the show: the story or the man who inhabits that story?” Wiley said at the unveiling.
“I tried to negotiate less gray hair. Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked,” Barack Obama joked at the unveiling. The artist actually seems to have made the former president look older than he is, according to Hobbs. “I’m wondering if that was intentional, a way to show that Obama, at this point, is a senior statesman, even though he isn’t 60 yet,” he said.
The 44th president is seated at a chair that “combines 18th-century and turn-of-the-20th century motifs,” Hobbs said. “It’s a great way of setting up the president, who combines in himself very different cultures and different worlds.”
“The dress chosen for the painting was designed by Milly. It had abstract patterns that reminded me of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s geometric paintings,” Sherald said Monday. “But Milly’s design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small, remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts and geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces.”
Michelle Obama’s grayscale complexion isn’t a mistake: It’s a statement about the cultural construction of race, Hobbs said. “By taking black and white and mixing them together, what this artist is doing is saying, ‘There are not black people, there are not white people, there are gray people.’ ”
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