Published: Wed, February 14, 2018
World | By Melba Underwood

Who is Kehinde Wiley? Obama's Portraitist Has an Amazing Portfolio

Who is Kehinde Wiley? Obama's Portraitist Has an Amazing Portfolio

Every four to eight years, a couple of new presidential portraits appear at the National Portrait Gallery, memorializing the likes of George W. and Laura Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, and so forth. These are not your mama's portraits, in other words. "We're still trying to express our identity... when we do see ourselves we're sort of taken aback". For example, Wiley included flowers like jasmine to represent Hawaii, Obama's birthplace; African blue lilies for Kenya, the birthplace of his father; and chrysanthemums for Chicago, the birthplace of his political career.

"I'm thinking of all the girls of colour who will come and see someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American Institution", said the former USA first lady. She praised Sherald, who "was fly and poised and hip and cool", and who won her over with focused resolve. The subject though, is a departure for the artist, who are often, as the Village Voice described in 2015, "young people of color who in these pictures are gussied up in the trappings of art history or Givenchy". "And her just being herself was a profound statement that really engaged all of us because she is just accessible, and I think that she is ideally the same as the sitters that I've had before".

To place the pieces in their artistic and political context, I spoke to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture. Sherald's painting of Michelle Obama shows her sitting with one hand under her chin and the other draped across her lap, while wearing a long flowing dress decorated with geometric shapes. The idea is to underscore the fact that during the 19th century, African Americans were rarely the subject of formal portraits.

Amy Sherald took a different approach to Michelle Obama's portrait.

Michelle La Vaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald  Oil on linen 2018  National Portrait, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait is grateful to the following lead donors to the Obama portraits Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg Ju
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"What do you want me to tell Romney?" But these portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden.

Wiley, who is a Los Angeles native, previously had a series of works featuring hip-hop artists displayed in the National Gallery. 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". She also makes a point of painting "civilians".

But both artists have stressed the importance of creating portraiture of African Americans that will reconfigure the canon and the museum in more inclusive ways. Michelle Obama's portrait, for its part, is now hanging in a hallway for several months, after which its fate is unclear. Sherald is a charismatic figure, and I expect that are many people who will be happy to discover her work.

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