Former US president, Barack Obama, attended the unveiling of his and former first lady’s, Michelle Obama, official portraits at the Smithsonian National Gallery in Washington last night. As was expected, the Obamas brought their charm and humility to the much-anticipated unveiling.
Usually, such an event would happen without much fanfare or interest. The addition of former presidents’ portraits into the gallery has been a tradition for a while, and the Smithsonian has been working to commission portraits of former first ladies since 2006. But, as we’ve come to know with the Obamas, they tactfully used their platform and influence to make a statement with their portraits.
They commissioned two young, influential African-American artists for their portraits, Mr Obama chose Kehinde Wiley and Mrs Obama chose Amy Sherald. Wiley’s depiction of Barack is considered, intentional and overall striking. In the piece, Obama takes on body language that is altogether different from previous presidents’ portraits. In place of the usual heroic power stance or pensive out-of-shot gazes, Obama is instead seated in a modestly decorated wooden chair, arms folded, with a concerned and engaged look on his face. In contradiction to this stern profile, the background is unabashedly foliaged, with pops of colour provided by the symbolic flowers. Chrysanthemum, the official flower of Chicago, jasmine for Hawaii (Obama’s state of birth), and even African blue lilies, representative of Kenya – Obama’s father’s birthplace. No one could have produced a portrait of this calibre, quite like Kehinde Wiley, who became a household name for depicting famous black figures in a traditionally white angle – in the Old Masters style.
Michelle Obama’s portrait is decidedly different, as artist Amy Sherald is to Kehinde Wiley. Unlike Wiley, Sherald has only gained success in her later years, but she too highlights African-Americans in her pieces of work. Often, though, she paints her subjects in a grey skin tone, so as to challenge racial ambiguity. She stuck to her successful formula with the former first lady and produced a piece that is unequivocally Michelle Obama. In it, Michelle is wearing a halterneck dress in a geometric print believed to be a nod to traditional African textiles. Her gaze is direct and thoughtful, but her features are soft. The look on her face embodies Mrs Obama, kind but not a pushover. Her loose hair and blue nails hint at something else we all loved about this first lady – her sense of style and enviable arms.
The induction of the portraits of the first African American president and first lady into The Smithsonian was always going to be important, but through their considered artist choices, the Obamas made a lasting statement about promoting black artists. And while the pieces are ultimately so different from one another, they somehow work so well alongside each other.
And what did the subjects of these pieces think of the portraits? Needless to say, they were overjoyed. During his acceptance speech at The Smithsonian, Barack was visibly humbled – by both pieces. Of his wife’s portrait, Obama simply said “Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love.” Michelle, ever the gracious, noted the significance of the portrait of a black woman in history hanging in the hallowed Smithsonian halls: “They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution… and I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”