Sherald, Wiley, and their Historic Depictions of the Obamas

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Image: NPR

Yesterday, the historic portraits of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed to the public. Brooklyn-based artist Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore native Amy Sherald were personally chosen to paint these historic portraits by the Obamas themselves and are both known for their renowned, distinct depictions of African American life and culture. Both artists make history as the first Black painters to receive a presidential portrait commission from the National Portrait Gallery.

Starting today, each new life-sized work will stand out among its predecessors at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.  In comparison to traditional portrait concepts of past first couples, these works undoubtedly offer a bold, unique take on the powerful legacies of the Obamas.

Met with messages of praise and surprise, the works display an immense amount of symbolism and bold choices. For example, many portraits show the subject staring vaguely into the middle distance. In these portraits, the first couple is engaged with the viewer – their stare direct, personal, and connected to the viewer.

On Michelle Obama’s skin, artist Amy Sheldon says that the grayscale tone is a statement about the societal and cultural construction of race.  On the geometric dress that drapes the former first lady, Sherald shares that the dress chosen for the painting was designed by Milly.

“…Milly’s design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of the Gee’s Bend, a small, remote Black community in Alabama where they compose quilts and geometrics that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces”

“She’s an archetype that a lot of women can relate to — no matter shape, size, race or color. We see our best selves in her.”Amy Sherald, 2017 interview with the New York Times.

On President Obama’s distinct background, Wiley says the variety of flowers symbolize the diversity of his personal journey and story – the jasmine flower of Hawaii, African blue lilies to represent his Kenyan roots, and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, IL.

“The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming,” Wiley said. “It doesn’t get any better than that. I was humbled by this invitation but I was also inspired by Barack Obama’s personal story.”

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