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Art / Presidential Portraiture

Color in a White House: The Obamas Reimagined

The Presidential Portraits exhibition of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery houses presidential art ranging from a bust of Woodrow Wilson to a gold-framed photograph of Martin van Buren. Evoking emotional responses from warmth to awe, the Presidential Portraits claim to “tell the American story,” and the newest chapter about to be included is that of black America.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, two black artists, for their respective Portraits, which will be unveiled at the museum in early 2018 and added to the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Wiley will paint the President and Sherald the First Lady.

The most famous artistic portrayal of President Obama is Shepard Fairey’s 2008Obama “HOPE” Portrait, which The New Yorker praised as “the most efficacious American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You.’” Fairey edited a photograph taken in 2006 by Mannie Garcia of the Associated Press; the Associated Press “is seeking credit and compensation for its use in Mr. Fairey’s works,” but a lawyer for Fairey told the Associated Press that the artist was “protected by fair-use standards.” It remains unclear how credit for the artwork will be given.

The “HOPE” Portrait, first created as a poster, exudes omnipotent optimism; the use of both red and blue represents bipartisan unity, the pin on Obama’s lapel shows the arc of a road to progress, and the capitalized HOPE embodies the post-racism America that so many dreamed Obama would bring to fruition. Used as the campaign image for the 2008 election, the “HOPE” Portrait was adopted by thousands of supporters and plastered onto a plethora of merchandise.

The “HOPE” Portrait now resides in the National Portrait Gallery, where it will soon be joined by Kehinde Wiley’s interpretation of President Barack Obama. Whereas the “HOPE” Portrait was a strategic piece of a highly publicized campaign ending in a post-Civil Rights Movement victory, Wiley’s post-presidency portrait will mix sadness into that triumph. Obama brought systemic change to America in his two terms, but his successor threatens to erode all that he worked so hard to create.

As Wiley and Sherald are the first black artists commissioned to paint a presidential couple, this purposeful choice commences a new age of well-deserved visibility for black artists. Though those quick to criticize the Obamas may make the case that the infamous “race card” granted Wiley and Sherald representation in the Smithsonian, Wiley and Sherald’s critically acclaimed talent is undeniable. Both artists have developed unique, lush artistic styles communicating immense feeling. The motivation of racial equity behind the Obamas’ portrait artist choices is well-meaning, should be celebrated, and does not in any way diminish the power of these creative styles.

Kehinde Wiley’s work serves as the antidote to both the media’s “thug,” inserting gentleness into black masculinity, and to whitewashed history, reconstructing classical images with black people. Amy Sherald’s work explores blackness through lightheartedness, absurdity, and challenging moral questions about nationalism and symbolism.

Kehinde Wiley’s portraiture is arresting, glossy, and expansive. He said of the opportunity to represent President Obama, “I’m excited about it: It’s going to be amazing.” Wiley often positions his subject in the center of the frame in front of a delicate, ornate backdrop. Consider 2009’s After Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s “Triple Portrait Of Charles I,”whose title pays homage to Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s 1653 tri-angle portrait, Charles I in Three Positions. Wiley’s piece shows a black man clad in a casual bomber jacket and flat-brimmed hat. The man exudes softness; he gazes into the viewer’s eyes and holds a hand against his torso as if he is nursing a wound. The background of cheerful yellow and delicate pink cherry blossoms is at times superimposed over the man; he is part of the nature and gentleness.

Wiley attacks the stereotype of the young, black male “thug” by showing black men as sources of softness and light, not hyper-masculinity or aggression. Wiley cites a crumpled mugshot of a young black man that he found in Harlem as artistic inspiration: “I see this piece of paper, and I’m looking at him, and he’s got these weird necklaces on. He’s got this really beautiful, sympathetic face. And I’m like, ‘This has to be a portrait!’”

Wiley’s newest maritime-themed exhibition is currently displayed in the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London and uses real Haitian citizens as models. Both the lavishly textured ocean waves and carefree black sailors emit a celestial glow. The paintings venture into new domain by showing black people embracing gentlemen’s leisure, or a certain aspect of Western ingenuity and know-how.”

Wiley’s boldest social experiment is thrusting black figures into antiquity, often via classical or religious imagery. 2016’s Christ After Lady Macbeth IIdepicts a black Jesus Christ sporting a golden chain and cross that embody 90s streetwear more than a Roman crucifixion. In 2016’s The Virgin And Child Enthroned, Wiley reimagines the Madonna and Child with a young black father and his child seated in a throne in front of the stained glass windows and black-and-white tiled floors indicative of an English church, both sporting skinny jeans and basketball sneakers.

In 2012’s Judith And Holofernes, notably during the year of Obama’s re-election, Wiley reimagines Caravaggio’s 1602 work Judith Beheading Holofernes, a scene from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith in which the widow Judith decapitates the Assyrian general Holofernes with a sword. Caravaggio’s piece depicts three white figures: Judith, Holofernes, and Judith’s maid Abra, watching over her mistress at this tense moment and supporting the violence. Wiley’s piece, however, depicts only two figures, one white and one black, where a black woman holds the head of a white woman in one hand and a sword in the other. No one else is present to mollify the conflict between the two women, and a racial narrative has likely been inserted. Adding a black perspective to a historically white political narrative argues that black people deserve more representation in government now and that history should never again appear so homogenous.

The background of Caravaggio’s piece is dark and brooding, all shadows and swathes of crimson fabric, whereas the background of Wiley’s piece lends lightness to gory violence with flowers in brilliant green, orange, and blue. The Obamas’ choice to commission Wiley shows that the couple is unafraid of controversy and of perhaps embracing imagery of black power.

In using black figures to depict classical art, Wiley forces viewers to consider what history looked like as it occurred and how our imagery of history is controlled by our artists and historians now. Who owns history? Who deserves to control how history enters the modern day? Wiley argues that history is widely available in a democracy and granted the right to include modern perceptions; his Biblical imagery includes the artistic liberty of black men in basketball sneakers because those men influence both how he travels through the world today and how he interacts with the classical sources that inform our modern world.

While Wiley’s work embraces social and moral questions through natural imagery, light, and softness, Amy Sherald’s work fuses the quotidian with the playfully absurd. Sherald’s portraits are currently displayed in the following exhibitions: The Outwin 2016, Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture, and several public collections. In May 2018, she will show a solo exhibition at Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, MO.

Sherald’s work uses pastel charm to capture emotional complexity. In 2011’s It Made Sense… Mostly In Her Mind, a black woman in decorative jockey’s garb holds a bridled toy unicorn. It is unexpected to see a black figure both as an upper-class equestrian and as a vision of leisure. In 2011’s powerfully titled High Yella Masterpiece: We Ain’t No Cotton Pickin’ Negroes, two sharply suited men with pale brown skin stand in front of a yellow backdrop and hold pink clouds of cotton candy. Sherman here adopts two clever wordplays: first, toying with the late 19th and early-20th century notion of a “high yellow” person, someone with predominantly European ancestry but just enough black blood to be noticeably non-white, and two, giving the black men cotton candy. Antebellum slaves picked cotton to survive, but these liberated 21st-century black men eat cotton candy in their leisure. Their self-assured expressions and dashing suits infer that they laugh at the notion that they could be considered inferior; they, too, have the right to be carefree after centuries of bondage.

Though Sherald’s work deals with social issues faced by black people, she uses grayscale, a range of deep, silvery hues, as her portrait subjects’ skin colors. Sherald’s playing with skin color further engages the viewer. She expresses the black experience while lessening the emphasis on skin color, suggesting that blackness is more internal than external.

Sherald also grapples with the question of how a historically oppressed race can or should engage with American nationalism. In 2017’s What’s Precious Inside of Him Does Not Care to be Known by the Mind in Ways That Diminish its Presence (All American), Sherald surprises her viewer with a black cowboy, clad in an American-flag patterned button-down shirt, jeans held up by a Western belt with a galloping horse on the buckle, and a black cowboy hat. Though Wild West films portrayed cowboys as the staunchly white counterpart to their “Indian” rivals, the Smithsonian reports that one in four cowboys were black. Former slaves were often hired as cowhands, learning how to lasso, shoot, and even “dare-devil ride” for leisure. Though Sherald’s painting title here argues that the man’s blackness does not inhibit him from contributing to an “All-American” societal role, one must consider what employment choices would have been available to a freed slave and why a black man would have become a cowboy.

Since the image of the black, flag-clad cowboy is surprising, one must consider why that is so. In addition to the media’s erasure of the black cowboy, the notion of a black person wearing an American flag feels shocking in 2017, the year of kneeling during the National Anthem in order to protest racial inequality and hot debates over how a symbol of a nation should be treated in public discourse. Sherald poses the timely question: since all Americans deserve to feel represented by their flag, how can that social goal be achieved?

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald will each add a fascinating portrait to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Wiley’s central themes of blackness, masculinity, and antiquity will provide a fresh insight into President Barack Obama’s unprecedented tale of triumph and loss. Sherald’s central themes of brevity, reclaiming narratives, and nationalism will capture the innovation and pride First Lady Michelle Obama showed while under duress. Hopefully, the increased visibility for these pioneers of black art will prompt Americans to engage with more artists of color. Wiley and Sherald remind us that we have the agency to control our history; their vision juxtaposes the black President and First Lady against a thoroughly White House.