With black audience underrepresented in museum audiences, the Obamas' portraits could start a vital conversation about who gets to enjoy and critique artby Bolanle Tajudeen / February 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Barack Obama is effortlessly cool. His post-presidency photographs showed him jet skiing on Richard Branson’s private island. Every year, he gives us a Spotify playlist featuring hip-hop, soul and jazz. His mic drop moment will forever be in our meme library.
So it was of little surprised that the coolest president ever chose Kehinde Wiley to immortalise him in the Smithsonian public presidential collection. Wiley—who is also a popular and cool contemporary painter—is known for creating grandiose masters of African American subjects, re-imagined as noble figures.
The portrait of Barack Obama was slightly different from his usual style, apparently as per his request. It may have been this that compelled Wiley to portray the president without a tie, capturing his self-assured, free personality without any props to bolster his authority.
Obama floats against a background of flowers and foliage, with his wedding band one of the only items visibly on show—thus signifying to future generations that not only was Obama the most powerful man in the world, he should be remembered as a loving husband, rather than embroiled in insecure hypermasculinity like his successor.
With this in mind, it’s something of a shame that a different artist was chosen to paint former first lady Michelle Obama. Barack Obama has always spoken about his and Michelle’s loving relationship.
In a joint interview with Oprah in 2011, he said “you were asking earlier what keeps me sane, what keeps me balanced, what allows me to deal with the pressure. It is this young lady right here … not only has she been a great first lady, she is just my rock. I count on her in so many ways every single day.”
The couple were a real life, black visual representation of power, marriage and family success, the Obamas became a source of inspiration for many young black people —who would instantly post #goals underneath photographs of them together.
Commissioning one artist, instead of two may have led to a deeper, intrinsic story being told about America’s first black presidential couple. I would have been in favour of giving Lina Viktor this challenge.
Amy Sherald’s official portrait of the former first lady Michelle Obama, also unveiled on Monday at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, was in direct contrast to the literally eye oscillating Wiley portrait.