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.

"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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