Barack Obama’s portrait is by Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle Obama’s portrait is by Amy Sherald. They are “the first black artists to create official, Smithsonian-commissioned portraits of a former President and First Lady,” per Obama.org.
Whatever else happens around these portraits, those two well-known artists are today getting yet more attention and more press than they will on any other day of their lives. So on that front: mission accomplished! The Obamas have, once again, managed to turn an official duty into a chance to celebrate cultures that have been rarely celebrated in official circles in the past.
Before I talk about how much I like the portrait of Barack Obama, let me speak very briefly about how underwhelming the Michelle Obama portrait is. If you know Amy Sherald’s work, you know that this frank, front-and-center approach on a blank background is her special thing. Here are two examples from Sherald’s excellent website:
Wow! The boldness here is so striking. Where is that boldness in the portrait of the First Lady? Her grayish skin and the pale blue background seem designed to almost cancel each other out. Why?
It seems so pointedly lackluster that I’m left wondering if that’s supposed to be the actual theme? Maybe suggesting that Michelle Obama was forced to fade into the background as First Lady, to be something she’s not? On another front, it just doesn’t look that much like Michelle Obama to my eye, and that’s got to be the first job of any portrait. Critic Jerry Saltz says that this Obama “is grand, elegant, gorgeous, but her jackrabbit-quick wit is right there,” but I’m not seeing it.
Maybe it’s different in person. Maybe it grows on you. So far, I’m struggling with it.
Now on to the much more winning portrait of Barack Obama. Is it weird? Yes. Is it “out there?” Yes indeed. Is it obviously well-crafted, complex and thought-provoking? Yes, yes, yes. It’s very accomplished. Look at that visage:
That’s the guy! Whatever you think of him, that’s definitely the guy right there.
Obama is shown as “an alert and troubled thinker,” according to critic Holland Cotter. Cotter also lays out the floral symbolism:
African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama himself was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, reference the city where his political career began, and where he met his wife.
But those flowers aren’t just a polite background: they’re actively engulfing the president.
What is going on here? Is Barack Obama emerging from the undergrowth onto the stage of history? Or is he already receding, before our eyes, into the mists?
Or is it all a reference to his Hawaiian heritage? That chair looks like something that might have been right in place at Iolani Palace not so long ago. Many politicians are creatures of courtrooms and boardrooms; is this a subtle suggestion that Obama is somehow out of place, different, a man of nature as well as politics? That seems obscure, but who knows? It’s thought-provoking, and that’s saying a lot.
Kehinde Wiley, the artist, says it’s about openness:
“The narrative had to do with accessibility, the narrative had to do with a language of openness… There were no ties, it’s an open collar, it’s a much more relaxed body language — the sense of repose yet at the same time a kind of radical vigilance in the eyes.”
For myself, I believe the flowers are beginning to grow over Obama. It’s historical: here’s a guy who is a groundbreaker, a pioneer, the first African-American president, a singular figure in American history. And yet like all figures in history, how quickly what was extraordinary becomes everyday. How quickly we set new standards and move on.
Obama is still vital, thoughtful, watchful, and yet I think he also is wise enough about history to be content with the wild forest beginning to fill in around him. He is Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat, still extraordinary, yet soon to be lost in overgrowth. That’s how it works.