Nigerian artist, Kehinde Wiley paints portrait of ex-US President, Barack Obama

Pauline Gross
February 14, 2018

The event was also significant as it was for the first time that not one, but two African-American artists were selected to paint the former POTUS and the FLOTUS. But never like this.

The former first lady reflected on the impact that the portrait could have on girls of color. Her edges are muted, her gaze distant, her skin a charcoal gray. He met the model for this painting, Treisha Lowe, at Fulton Mall, a pedestrian shopping street in downtown Brooklyn. As with many works of art, this was meant to be provocative ("I think at its best what art is doing is setting up a set of provocations", Wiley said in a 2015 interview).

"I had to explain that I've got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon", he said. His work, Obama said, like our democracy, "is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up".

A new take on portraiture was welcome by many art critics and fans alike.

This routine isn't at all surprising in our digital age, when images and opinions emerge at a rate faster than any human can consume them. The resounding sentiment? "It looks nothing like her".

We're still in awe of the stunning portrait of Michelle Obama that was revealed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. yesterday.

After the unveiling, Michelle Obama reflected on the otherworldly experience of seeing herself in paint. "I see people who have the vision and the intent to not only be great people, but great thought leaders".

The former president gave a shoutout to Sherald for capturing his wife's "hotness". "These paintings make the viewer speculate about the quieter wants and wishes of the black common men and women who have emerged on the linen en grisaille - Sherald's taupe variant of grayscale - like ghosts". The event, which in past years has played out as a routine ceremony, felt momentous as portraits showed the first African American couple in the White House by the first African American artists to be commissioned for the task. But within the portrait are little clues - chrysanthemums represent Chicago, as that's the official flower of his hometown; jasmine, Hawaii, his birthplace; and African blue lilies, his Kenyan heritage. "The story or the man who inhabits the story?" In Wiley's words, "I am painting women in order to come to terms with the depictions of gender within the context of art history".

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Sherald was 30 years old, finishing graduate school and training for a triathlon in 2004 when she made a decision to see a doctor. Mr. Obama, for his part, seemed delighted with the painting, showing him leaning forward intently while seated, suspended in a verdant backdrop of vines and flowers.

Smith's sketch of her dress for Michelle Obama. The unorthodox, fantastical details of each painting speak to the mythic proportions of their subjects.

"The simple fact of her portrait hanging with those of other first ladies is a cultural and emotional milestone". Many were excited for the Obamas return to the spotlight and praised the two black artists. Yet Clinton's face, no matter how unusually depicted, still fades into the long hallway of heretofore entirely white bodies.

The portrait includes a vein on the side of Obama's head that has caused internet buzz.

Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley / Oil on canvas, 2018 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

On Tuesday, Sean Hannity's official website posted an article that suggested Barack Obama's Smithsonian portrait included "secret sperm cells". Instead, he embraced an artist's ability to go beyond immortalizing a likeness and begin to shape a legacy. You take people from everyday life and elevate them to a level of dignity and celebration. Not yet installed on museum walls, the paintings felt especially sacrosanct. They are just being themselves.

Twitter had mixed reactions to the portraits. And today we're seeing more and more evidence that the social gains of the civil rights, and Black Power, and Obama eras are, with a vengeance, being rolled back.

Wiley is known for depicting modern-day African-American subjects using the tropes of classical European art.

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