On February 12 of this year, Barack and Michelle Obama unveiled their presidential portraits to hang alongside the rest of America’s former presidents in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. What is notable about these paintings is they are history in the making; they break the molds of tradition.
Here is why: The Obamas utilized their African American background as an opportunity to introduce vibrant color and dynamic style into the prestigious portrait gallery. Both the former President and the First Lady had the chance to hand pick their portraitist, and they chose very intentionally. Barack Obama chose artist Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle chose Amy Sherald — both of whom are known for creating art revolving around the recognition and praise of the African American man and woman. While the Obamas lived in the White House, they sustained a constant commitment to African American artists in the official White House art collection, and naturally their portraits are an extension of their personal aesthetic preferences.
Kehinde Wiley’s large-scale paintings are recognized for placing modern day African American street figures in the place of historical/political paintings. Replacing white western leaders is his symbol of replacing power and challenging convention. In Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, the first African American president is sitting in a simple but elegant wooden chair, resting atop mounds of green foliage speckled with flowers.
The spots of flowers include blue lilies from Kenya, a salute to Obama’s heritage; jasmine to symbolize his childhood in Hawaii; and chrysanthemums, the flower of Chicago, which is where Obama began his political career. Obama seems to be floating amidst the mass of leaves, but this intentionally represents him as floating in an ethereal realm while still very immersed in the grit of the earth. Obama’s pose is both regal and relatable; he is attentive and attune to the present and the future.
In Michelle Obama’s portrait, artist Amy Sherald expressed the first lady’s care for her ancestors and the need to use hard truths of the past to empower each other. In her paintings, Sherald uses the grayscale to address the issue of race. Grayscale celebrates the African American complexion the way it is seen in early forms of art in history. Her use of the grayscale speaks to the traditions of photography, recalling some of the first portraits of African Americans, whereas traditional portrait painting was favoured by the white gentry who could afford it. Like her husband, Mrs. Obama’s gaze is exceedingly direct, meeting the gaze of the viewer full on. The dress worn in the portrait is from the MILLY 2017 collection, by designer Michelle Smith. The skirt of the dress was made of stretch cotton poplin, a commoner’s fabric, with pockets. The dress was designed and inspired by the desire for equality in human rights and race, but the use of lacing and ties in the dress are there to remind us of a feeling of being held back and that everyone still has a long way to go before reconciliation is achieved.
As a presidential family who broke tradition, the Obamas, by working with artists like Wiley and Sherald, prolong the legacy of independent thinkers who will change convention one step at a time.
Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Obama portraits are housed in the National Gallery. They are actually a part of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.