Obama Portraits: Your Get-Smart Guide
What our reactions tell us about ourselves and our world
Since the release this week of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portraits, I began to receive calls, emails, and queries from family, friends and colleagues: what did I think? Why was there such a furor? These were followed by what I’ll call opinionated questioning: why was Barack Obama surrounded by flowers–or as one person put it, why did Barack Obama look like he was at a garden party? Why didn’t Michelle Obama’s portrait look like Mrs. Obama? Friends and family call me because the majority of us are not comfortable talking about art. Few of us remember the art history courses we took in college (if we took any) and none of us has time in our busy daily lives to keep up. As a scholar of material and visual culture, however, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about, looking at, and analyzing artworks––particularly works produced by contemporary Black artists, who may be far well less known than they should be.
I think that’s why I get the calls.
I also get the calls because I come to these works not only as your quintessential Covey reader––indefatigably curious, eager to learn, and excited to share new info––but also because as a Black woman and scholar, I am keenly aware of why and how representation, particularly of Black people, matters. As I spent time yesterday looking closely at the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery, watching others react to them for the first time, I was most struck by the awe that spread over the face of a little girl who realized that someone who looked like her was being honored on a museum wall. I didn’t see any confusion about grayscale or two-dimensionality! I saw interest, excitement, and the power of being respectfully seen.
As humans, we are surrounded by visual material––and the visual has been used for eons as a very powerful medium through which to express concepts, fantasies, and to record, for posterity, our present and hopes for the future. In an age of visual saturation––where, in a return of sorts, the emoji has taken the place of the pictograph––I wonder how are viewers to decipher the verdant visual landscape around us? What tools do we have to enhance our visual analysis? How do we become savvy readers of what we see? What is at stake in developing our visual literacy and sophistication?
The truth is: art is deeply subjective. We are drawn close, repelled, confused, disturbed, made joyous, or captivated, often based on our own experiences and personal epistemologies. So I always start by asking the caller––or viewer––first and foremost “what do you see?” I tell them that as a scholar of the visual, I think about the color scales and palette, the figurative representation, the facial expressions, the gestures, the visual codes and references within each portrait. But the important questions is: what responses do these things evoke in you? Where are your eyes drawn as you look at the works? What intrigues you? What do you recognize and what feels unfamiliar?
Here are the only five points you need to understand:
1. These paintings mark a historic departure from how former presidents and their partners have been portrayed in official portraits. Guided in their choice of artists by the illustrious Studio Museum Director, Thelma Golden, the Obamas selected two forcefully contemporary and highly skilled artists. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are the first Black Americans artists to paint official presidential portraits. Having spent nearly a decade in the full glare of the public’s gaze, and most notably under the scrutiny of the white gaze (and its attendant expectations for performance), the Obamas chose artists who might be far less likely to replicate that voyeuristic and problematic gaze. While they are young artists (both are in their early 40s), each of them has been working for at least twenty years.
2. The wide range of responses can be attributed to a lack of familiarity with Black contemporary art. If the last year has shown us anything, it has served as a reminder of the different experiences that shape how we view the world––and in the case of the Obama portraits, how we look at art and what kinds of art with which we are familiar. Aesthetic exposure, what we see and from what range of cultural perspectives that aesthetic comes from, is a form of diversity. Wiley and Sherald have both been featured in major museum exhibitions, yet their work is most familiar to those in the art world––and to people of color who are familiar with the selective adoption or erasure of non-European aesthetics. That may be because Black artists––like Wiley and Sherald––have flown below the radar of where many Americans go to see or experience art. The wonderful thing about all this talk is that it opens the door to learn about the stunning work produced by the many intriguing and talented artists from the African diaspora working today.
3. There is indeed a bit of the subversive going on here. Wiley received his MFA from Yale and is known for the beauty of his brushwork, his knowledge of, and incorporation of, Old Masters painting styles, and the care with which he constructs images of Black men. That matters because most Old Masters––Titian, da Vinci, van Eyck, Bruegel––were not in the habit of painting Black men, and certainly didn’t include Black men in positions of power and respect, and as worthy of admiration. Wiley’s work is radical because he upends the calculus of Black erasure and lovingly paints Black men with great skill, symbolism, and attention. Amy Sherald focuses her painting exclusively on portraits. She is interested in highlighting the individuality of the subjects she paints. Trained at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Sherald is known for the vibrant hues in her backgrounds and her use of objects––a teacup, purse, or flower, to convey the personality of the person she is painting.
Many people expect highly representational portraits, that is, portraits that look like the Obamas, i.e. like their official photographs. But portraits are tricky––they aren’t intended to be as precise as photographs or necessarily to be representationally realistic. They serve as a different kind of mirror. In fact, when Bill Clinton had his official portrait painting by Chuck Close who was known for creating paintings that visually mimic photography, he did the opposite of the expected style: creating an abstract work that was still imbued with his hallmark approach.
Portraits––and especially those done by contemporary artists––aren’t intended to be representationally realistic, but rather to capture the character of the sitter. That becomes even more important in an age in which photographs of one’s subjects exist in abundance. How then to capture a visual likeness that is truly unique? The answer in part is to do what Wiley and Sherald did: to focus on particular traits, to embrace appropriate levels of abstraction, to imbue the work with symbolism, and to let a certain amount of mystery persist.
4. The photographs of the Obama portraits do not do them justice. The colors are far more brilliant and beautiful when one is standing in front of them. This is particularly true for Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama which in-person is an electric rendering of our first African American First Lady. In person, you can see the technical details of the lush green background in Wiley’s portrait. Each leaf has been carefully rendered and there are actually layers of leaves done in deeper shades to create a nearly forest-like effect. The careful attention of the artists can be seen in small details: how beautifully Wiley rendered Obama’s hands and the lovely lighting and shading in his face. In Sherald’s painting, there is also a small homage to the idea of double identity or DuBois’ double consciousness. Look below Michelle Obama’s left arm at the seam of the dress where the grid pattern meets at her side. It creates a hiccup in the visual that is suggestive of two bodies. Though it’s simply the pattern of the dress, I read it as a clever play between the public and private self. She redefined what grace and warmth could be like in a FLOTUS. For nearly a decade, Michelle Obama was asked to be ever available and approachable. In Sherald’s painting, the serene but dynamic robin’s egg blue background affords Mrs. Obama a perch of self-presentation and calm. Her elegantly draped dress reminds us of her sartorial diplomacy. Mrs. Obama’s dress has embedded meanings: many observers, myself included, noted the nod to Gee’s Bends quilts, which Sherald has explained inspired her.
These works are daring and exciting. Official government portraits by contemporary Black artists. They are modern and fresh to the bone––and I mean that in both regular English and in the Black vernacular, as in they are fresh to death!
5. Speaking of seeing these works in-person, you should know there is a line to get in because of all the selfies. There has been such deep interest in seeing the portraits in-person that people have been flocking to the National Portrait Gallery. On my second visit, I learned that an estimated 2,500 people visited Michelle Obama’s portrait in the span of a single day–which is some cases has meant about a 20-minute wait. Those lining up to see the portraits aren’t walking away empty-handed. Over two days I have noticed people are finally getting to take a selfie with the Obamas.
Tell us what you see and feel when you look at the portraits in the comment box below.
Join CoveyClub, Tuesday, April 3rd from 5:30-7:00 pm for a tour of the National Portrait Gallery led by Izetta Mobley. Sign up here. Space is limited to 20; price: $20.
Izetta Autumn Mobley is a fifth-generation native Washingtonian (and proud of it!). She is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Maryland.