Obama Presidential Portraits a Nod to Diversity, Inclusion in Art

“The ability to be the first African American painter, to paint the first African American president of the United States … It doesn’t get any better than that,” artist Kehinde Wiley said.

The image of President Barack Obama reflected in an official portrait created by Kehinde Wiley was revealed on Monday. Wiley’s works celebrate the Black community by taking his own spin on Eurocentric paintings.

The New York-based artist uses his Yale University training to create a twist on European-style classical artwork. In his portraits, which have been the subjects of exhibitions worldwide, Wiley takes the heroes of Old Masters paintings and depicts them as Black men and women.

Official portrait“Growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles, going to the museums in L.A., there weren’t too many people that happened to look like me in those museums, on those walls,” Wiley said at the portrait unveiling.

He explained that portraiture in museums is “whom we as a society decide to celebrate, this is our humanity,” he said.

“The ability to be the first African American painter, to paint the first African American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

In the portrait, Obama is surrounded by chrysanthemums, the official flower of his adopted home, Chicago; African blue lilies representing Kenya, his father’s birthplace; and jasmine for Hawaii, Obama’s birthplace.

Wiley explained that the flowers tell Obama’s narrative yet compete with his persona.

“Who gets to be the star of the show?” Wiley said. “The story, or the man who inhabits the story?”

The artist creates massive paintings, some 9 feet tall, with bold colors to further explore themes of race and gender.

Wiley, the first Black gay man to be commissioned by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to paint an official portrait, talked about his sexuality in a 2015 New York Times interview.

“I’m a gay man who has occasionally drifted,” he said. “I am not bi. I’ve had perfectly pleasant romances with women, but they weren’t sustainable. My passion wasn’t there.”

His portrait of Obama will reside in the Smithsonian’s permanent “America’s Presidents” exhibition. It is not the portrait that will hang in the White House. The White House Historical Association commissions those paintings of U.S. presidents.

Artist Amy Sherald, the first Black woman commissioned to paint a portrait for the gallery, created the image of First Lady Michelle Obama. The Baltimore-native became the first woman to win the National Portrait Gallery Outwin Boochever Portrait competition in 2016. Sherald was also recently awarded the High Museum of Art’s David Driskell Prize.

Sherald is known for stylized, non-traditional portraits of Black women. Obama’s dress, inspired by a cotton poplin dress in Michelle Smith’s spring 2017 Milly collection, has a political message. Smith said she was inspired by “desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality” that season, according to The Washington Post.

Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama will be on display through early November 2018.

The Obamas reviewed the portfolios of more than two dozen artists before deciding on Wiley and Sherald.

Watch a video of the portrait unveiling:

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  • I don’t like either as the final works. I think they should do two more that are more traditional.

  • Okay, I’ll play my position. I will be that stormy cloud, raining on everyone’s parade with this portrait. And quite frankly it will be a pleasure.

    1. Kehinde Wiley should close his mouth. Mouth breathers don’t know what they are talking about, most times. President Obama isn’t African American. He’s a Black American, specifically a Black Kenyan American man. Big difference. Black America is not a monolithic group. We’re compromised of many different people from all over diaspora and the African continent living in the United States as American citizens.

    2. If you’re an African American you should give zero f**** about this damn portrait of an elitist bougie class politician who had the most hard on distain for you as an African American DOS. You gave your heart and soul into electing this joke of a man only for him to tell you; you’re making excuses. Obama showed up and showed out with lack of heroism following in the footsteps of former White presidents, he did with great distinction refused to not stick up for the African American and entire Black American community when issues arose around police reform, police brutality, justice-drug reform, African American reparations, road blocked growth of small African American business, lead water and diminished HBCU funding for starters.

    3. Dare I say it. Michelle Obama is a damn joke too. Nothing came out her mouth to demonize and direct reform of Chicago Area schools dysfunctional schooling programs for one. How the hell do you come out of an African American neighborhood quiet as outer space on issues anchored in African American pain and say nothing?

    Not enough rage with African Americans to hold Democrats responsible and accountable. We’re like the dumb White voters in this country. They vote for their favorite White person. We vote for our favorite Black and White politicians. Both engage in destructive identity politics instead of agenda politics. Proud and free I make this declaration, these vultures to include Oprah because they all flock together can go back into the dark. They aren’t good for African American. Time for my community to move on.

  • I’m not an artist (so maybe my expectations are unrealistic), just an average person providing my humble opinion. Neither piece is flattering to me, nor does it reflect (what I believe) should qualify as presidential artwork. Obama’s portrait is too busy, so much going on in the background, and the choice of background colors takes away from his face (which should be the focus). As well, I would have imagined him standing (not sitting in a chair?) in front of the window to the oval office. The portrait of Michelle is a disservice to her beautiful form and features, it missed capturing and presenting her elegance. Can we petition a redo? If so, where do I sign up!?

    • I think it was the Obama’s choice, and we should leave it at that. But I agree with you, I would’ve preferred a more traditional treatment. The problem with highly stylized artwork is that it becomes dated very quickly. Barack Obama is a great American and a truly significant part of American history. His portrait should look that way. And Michelle’s portrait should look like Michelle.

      • Thanks, maybe Obama’s portrait grows on me over time, and I agree, Michelle’s really needs to be revisited.

          • Since these are not the paintings that are going into the White House, but are going to hang at the Smithsonian, I don’t have much problem with either one. I did say “much”, because while I like Michelle’s portrait, I did think after seeing it again, that it somewhat resembles her, but as a portrait that should look like her, it fails. If I have to be told that who the portrait is of, rather than immediately see who it is, it fails. The dress and the purple nails speak to me as more as a fashion statement then as a portrait of one of our most iconic first ladies. Michelle’s most noticeable facial feature are her eyes, and the artist got them wrong. Since Michelle doesn’t seem have a problem with it, maybe this is what she wishes she looks like? Barak- right down to the long fingers, is Barak. The background is very busy, but, like I said, the official White House portraits are yet to come. I did read somewhere that Barak’s’ pose is based on the portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

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