The Unveiling of the Obama Portraits

The Unveiling of the Obama Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery has recently unveiled the official portraits of former United States president, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.

Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Portrait Gallery, owns the only readily accessible complete collection of presidential likenesses. However, recent commissioned additions to the collection have been so undistinguished that the tradition of installing a new portrait after a president has left office is now little more than a ceremonial routine.

The present debut is strikingly different, not only because it’s the Obamas, the first African-American presidential couple to be enshrined in the collection, but because the selected painters to portray them — Kehinde Wiley, for Barrack Obama’s portrait and Amy Sherald, for Michelle Obama, are African-American artists who have addressed the politics of race consistently in their oeuvre. Wiley departs from tradition and depicts the former president not as a self-assured and confident bureaucrat, but as pensive and troubled while Sherald projects a calm Michelle Obama. The collection of first lady portraits is still incomplete; commissioning new ones started only in 2006.

Photo credit: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Kehinde Wiley is best known for his highly naturalistic paintings of African-Americans. Here, he applies the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth and prestige to his subject matter, drawn from the urban fabric. Wiley’s subjects and stylistic references are juxtaposed inversions of each other, forcing ambiguity and provocative perplexity to pervade his imagery. Kehinde Wiley’s larger than life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting, often blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality.

Amy Sherald’s work started out in autobiographical in manner, but took on a social context when she moved to Baltimore. She has achieved renown for her portraits that address social justice, as well as for her choice of subjects, which are drawn from outside of the art historical narrative. Through her work, she observes how people construct their identities in response to political, social, and cultural stimuli.

The National Portrait Gallery collection was created by an Act of Congress in 1962 and opened to the public in 1968. The Obama unveiling is part of the events to mark its 50th anniversary.



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