Staff Editorial: The Historical Importance of the Obama Portraits

Portraits of former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled on Feb. 12, destined for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The uniquely colorful paintings represent a shift from previous presidential and First Lady portraits. The Obamas chose Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald to create their likenesses. Barack’s painting, done by Wiley, renders the former president sitting, against lush green leaves and various flora that extend into the foreground. The first lady, as painted by Sherald, is shown in black and white against a light blue background in a dress with geometric details. Wiley and Sherald are the first African American artists to create works for the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley is a widely celebrated artist who rose to fame through his juxtaposition of anonymous black subjects and traditional Western artistic aesthetic. He is arguably the most prominent contemporary black artist. By contrast, Sherald was relatively unknown outside of the art world until Michelle’s portrait thrust her into the national spotlight. Both artists tackle themes of race and social justice and attempt to diverge from accepted historical ideas and racial representations. Sherald works to represent African Americans differently from the presiding historical narrative through her use of color. Wiley strives to “quote historical sources and position young black men within the field of power.” Though the artists have unique styles, they are both trying to rework ideas about black portraiture.

Wiley’s portrait initially received backlash related to the artist’s previous portrayals of black women holding the decapitated heads of white women. The paintings reference European Renaissance portrayals of Judith Beheading Holofernes and comment on reclaiming power from the oppressor. Some people responded negatively to the artist due to these previous works, feeling that Wiley was not suited to painting a presidential portrait. In fact, the iconography of Judith Beheading Holofernes has always been controversial. One of the most famous representations, by Artemisia Gentileschi, was a depiction of the artist’s rage against her mentor and rapist. The piece and Wiley’s depictions are no different; they both function as metaphors for a reclamation of lost power.

Sherald’s painting was also critiqued for placing more emphasis on the first lady’s dress in the composition. However, this deliberate choice represents Michelle’s famous fashion sense, but, perhaps more importantly, it captures quilting patterns, which are “a huge part of black culture,” according to Sherald.

It seems fitting that our first black President and First Lady were painted by the first black artists to be featured in the National Portrait Gallery. It is a powerful symbol of commemorating black excellence, especially given the present circumstances. President Trump stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration for many reasons, but most applicably, in his lack of action relating to racial issues and thinly veiled action against people of color, such as the travel ban against majority Arab countries. In these trying times, it is heartening to know that these powerful portraits will grace the walls of the National Portrait Gallery as symbols of dismantling white privilege.