Why I’m Sick of Hearing Criticism Of The Official Portraits Of Barack and Michelle Obama
First off lets just tackle the fact that the official portraits of former first couple Barack Obama and Michelle Obama that were unveiled earlier this week at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in D.C. — are not the official White House portraits — which explains why the Obamas were more exploratory with their options.
That being said I remember how elated I was when word got out that African-American artist Kehinde Wiley had been commissioned for Obama’s portrait. I was aware of his work and felt a sense of awe that our then president was willing and able to commit to the potent vibrancy attached to Wiley’s signature moves. Anyone who is familiar with this artist’s offerings can’t help but be struck by the strong themes that are evoked from the subjects — who are usually African-American males — positioned against the backdrop of influences from the renaissance period and West Africa.
But what is really deliciously startling about Wiley’s work is how he poetically and ironically utilizes his male subjects as messengers of a revolution against the tropes of expectations — that are normally assigned to Black men by a society that is still systematically hostile and intolerant of their presence.
The Los Angeles-born portrait painter who garnered his MFA from Yale University, School of Art — has an African-American mother and a Nigerian father who he didn’t grow up with — and this fact is what links him to Obama — who also thrived in the absence of his Kenyan father.
Wiley’s background undoubtedly plays a huge part in his paintings as he consistently symbolizes the urgency of depicting the blend of vastly different worlds with the vivid prettiness that still secures the maleness of his subjects — while also allowing the regal echoes of urban themes — that are poignantly transcribed in the dramatic poses — surrounded by floral and architectural regalia.
It’s all so stunningly powerful with spiritual tendencies that force you to expand beyond what the eyes and mind have been trained to accept as truth. This also explains why Obama was drawn to Wiley — when you consider the remarkable ascension of the very first African-American President of the United States of America.
The finished masterpiece is a gorgeous tribute to a man that embarked on a journey that was far from ordinary — and so it makes sense to commit to a session that reveals that celebrated uniqueness with all the accompaniments of the past and present. Wiley made sure to incorporate symbols of Obama’s heritage — which include — jasmine from his birth place of Hawaii and African blue lilies.
Obama’s endorsement and praise was apparent when he described the colorful portrait as “pretty sharp” after the unveiling. It is sharp! It’s also dignified and transparently mesmerizing because you can stare at it for an extended period — take a break — and come back to something that’s even more profound.
Some who aren’t impressed — mention how “unpresidential” he looks and bemoan how the background reduces his dignity as the former Commander-in-Chief. It certainly looks like Barack Obama — but the more watered-down version with a weirdly feminine twist.
Art is subjective and so the conversation of whether or not Wiley nailed his assignment is worth having — for the benefit of considering different points of view.
For me — I can’t contain the joyfulness of witnessing how an African-American artist made the most famous African-American man on the planet — look beyond dope in a way that can’t be replicated. Yes, he was the former President — but he was so much more than that and the portrait captures that fact with a level of clarity that is certainly religious. There are moments when I tear up while gazing with earnest and then melancholy sets in as I recall a time when life wasn’t perfect — but it certainly made sense.
Obama’s portrait is beauty — exemplified.
Former First Lady — Michelle Obama’s portrait was also beautifully produced by Amy Sherald — a Baltimore-based African-American artist who relies on her mission of emitting themes of social justice into the fibers of her work. Unlike Kehinde Wiley — I wasn’t aware of Sherald’s portfolio — but after seeing the breathtaking painting of her most high-profile client to date — I’m eager to add Ms. Sherald to my growing list of new discoveries.
From the quick research I did — coupled with my limited ability as an art critic — I can attest to her preference of stripping her subjects to the point of seamless bareness — by substituting deep hues with grayish strokes as a way to separate them from their stark likeness — in order to render them transparently molded.
This application on Michelle Obama wasn’t received well by many — and the reasons are understandable from an obvious standpoint. It doesn’t really look like her or remotely capture her spiritedness in ways that are endearingly familiar.
I happen to love the portrait and my devotion seems to elevate with each glance. The choice of garment is stellar and perfectly drapes the woman most of us grew to love and adore for eight years. The contrast between both portraits is jarring — but in a good way — which is exactly why these two artists were chosen for this imposing task.
Sherald’s interpretation of a woman who used her impressive achievements and unrelenting passion to match her husband’s prophetic calling is hauntingly searing in a refreshingly sobering way.
Portraits aren’t photographs. They’re supposed to capture the primal essence of the subject — and Amy Sherald did exactly that with flying colors. You can’t escape Michelle Obama’s majestic posture that is furnished by the heartwarming look of quiet contentment — that showers a calmly-exalted disposition.
The appealingly sedated hues provide easy entry into the soul of the very first African-American woman to dwell in the The White House — in a capacity that is historic and will certainly serve as the blueprint for future generations of Black girls who will forever be inspired and driven by the weightiness of such a legacy.
Social media has been jam packed with opinions about the highly-anticipated portraits — and I will admit that most of the ones assigned to Michelle Obama have been cringe-worthy. As much as I respect the freedom of expression — in this case it’s been a rotten experience imagining how Amy Sherald is internalizing the outcry over her work.
The reason why I’m sick of hearing the criticisms is simply because I want these two African-American artists to score a major win for their hard work and immense talent — as demonstrated in the final products. It couldn’t have been easy to handle the honor of being selected by two global icons who are used to a standard of excellence.
Despite the unfathomable pressure and grueling timetable — both Wiley and Sherald rose to the occasion and surpassed all expectations — but best of all — they were allowed to do it their way — with all the complexities and splendor included.
It’s a beautiful love story between artists and their faithful subjects and it all plays out in a way that is culturally profound — with elements of nostalgia that grip us every now and then — when we are transported back to the opulence of our existence — under the banner of a First Family that resembled our realized dreams.
We can disagree about the color schemes and the wrongly shaped silhouettes — but what we can’t afford to do is downplay the significance of this momentous occasion and its long-lasting impact.
Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are two names that we need to incessantly applaud loud enough to drown out the pettiness that often times gets in the way.
They both deserve that and more.