Barack and Michelle Obama Commissioned in Historic Smithsonian Gallery

Randolph Lopez
February 14, 2018

Barack and Michelle Obama revealed their presidential portraits for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on February 12, and while much of the focus was of course on the former president's - a colorful portrayal of Obama in the foreground of a floral motif by Kehinde Wiley - a handful of covert messages are hidden in the former first lady's portrait. Former vice president Joe Biden chatted with VIP guests across the aisle, including one of the National Portrait Gallery's commissioners Randi Levine.

The paintings were revealed Monday at the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums.

Some, who never accepted the first African-American president in the history of the country, criticized, for example, that the Fox News conservative network has dedicated time to cover Monday the presentation ceremony "of a chimpanzee's portrait". Although the artists worked independently of each other, and their works aren't meant to be seen side by side (they will reside in different galleries when they go on view), they make a curious pairing. "You exist in our minds and our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you", Sherald said. But within the portrait are little clues - chrysanthemums represent Chicago, as that's the official flower of his hometown; jasmine, Hawaii, his birthplace; and African blue lilies, his Kenyan heritage.

Sherald's strength is in teasing out the crux of a person, and she's very good at exposing a subject's most intimate truth through subliminal signaling. Sherald has a significant career, but has only in her 40s emerged on the national stage.

Wiley's former work includes paintings of black women who are dangling the decapitated heads of white women by the hair. But I think there will be considerable acclaim for this work, too, because Sherald managed to stay true to her own stylistic inclinations while producing a serviceable formal image. Wiley is well-known for his depictions of African Americans in grandiose settings, and Obama joked that he had to ask him to tone it down for the piece. "It's not a cheesecake pose, but it's embodied and physical in a way that's unusual for this kind of portrait; you get why her husband thanked Sherald for capturing Michelle Obama's grace, beauty, intelligence, and charm - and also her hotness".

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That she chose Sherald as an artist is also significant.

"It's one of those things that can, in a sense, remain stodgy unless you reinvigorate it with a new sense of urgency", Wiley tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

Wiley is known for painting young African-American men in bright, bold, regal settings that are influenced by art history. 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. They were first unveiled yesterday in a private observance as they celebrated the Gallery's 50th anniversary.

The Obama portrait fits within the same style. "I see something bigger in them, something more symbolic, an archetype".

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