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Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits, revealed this morning at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, are a breath of fresh air.
The racial element is obvious—here are two powerful black people painted by a pair of African-American artists (New York City-based painter Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore artist Amy Sherald) in a gallery dominated by work by old white men. Also there’s this: Barack and Michelle’s likenesses aren’t dreadfully boring.
Presidential portraits of the past, especially portraits from the 20th century, tend to be realistic depictions of our past commanders in chief inside the Oval Office surrounded by symbols of their institutional power. The portraits of the early presidents are slightly more evocative (the visage of Andrew Jackson now hanging in Trump’s Oval Office looks appropriately Count Dracula-like), but the last few resemble heavily photoshopped iPhone pics snapped by Dick Cheney.
In sharp contrast, New York City-based painter Wiley’s take on Barack Obama places him outdoors, leaning forward so that he appears to be listening, not lecturing. He sits in front of a hedge of greenery and flowers. Each bloom has symbolic meaning: chrysanthemums for his time spent in Chicago, jasmine for Hawaii, and African blue lilies for Kenya.
At the unveiling, Obama said he admired how Wiley’s work “challenge[s] our conventional views of power and privilege,” and indeed this floral portrait seems like a provocation in the present presidential era, where Trump sees the office as an excuse to perform a cartoonish brand of masculinity.
There’s been some Twitter criticism of Sherald’s bold portrait of Michelle Obama for not looking enough like the former first lady and for depicting her with gray skin. During a talk at John Hopkins last fall, the Baltimore Sun reported, Sherald explained: “Gray makes the paintings work. But it’s also a way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.”
It didn’t take Twitter long to discover that Obama’s leafy portrait is also very memeable:
Wow quite a presidential portrait Obama pic.twitter.com/GlvljHSBVR
— Chicago Reader (@Chicago_Reader) February 12, 2018