The Silver Scribe

Obama Couple’s Portraits Draw Attention: Controversy

Brett Bolander, Feature/News Section Editor

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February 12th marked the unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits to be displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.  The unconventional paintings garnered more attention and controversy than past presidential portraits.

 

Mr. Obama commissioned Kehinde Wiley, a prominent African American artist known for placing black people in place of famous figures in Western art, for his portrait, while Mrs. Obama chose Amy Sherald, a lesser known African American artist.  Both paintings are unusual when compared to the monotony normally associated with presidential portraits.

 

Mr. Obama is depicted sitting forward in a chair, intently focused, surrounded by a background of greenery.  Among the leaves lay three different types of flowers, each representing an important place in Obama’s life; African Blue Lilies, Africa; Jasmine, Hawaii; Chrysanthemums, Chicago.  

 

Mrs. Harris, an art teacher at Riverton High, said she thought the painting was okay, however she would have liked to see more of Obama and less of the greenery. She also said that if she had painted it she would have given his chair a ground to rest on.

 

Michelle Obama’s portrait has a more understated appearance, with muted colors and a solid blue background.  Sherald uses gray tones to depict her subject’s skin because of the racially ambiguous nature of the color, and Mrs. Obama’s portrait is no exception.  

 

Mrs. Obama wears a mostly white dress laced with colorful geometric patterns reminiscent of African textiles.  Some criticize the accuracy of Michelle Obama’s face, but for the most part Mrs. Obama’s portrait remains free of controversy.

 

The bulk of the controversy surrounds Barack Obama’s portrait.  Many criticize the portrait’s unconventional nature, but it is not the first presidential portrait in the National Portrait Gallery to break from stoic tradition.  

 

John F. Kennedy’s portrait is arguably more extreme, distorted with color and large brush strokes.  Bill Clinton’s portrait is also unconventional, with an amalgam of shapes and colors contributing to his likeness.  

 

It is also worth noting that the portrait is not being placed in the White House, but in the Smithsonian which allows for more artistic freedom.  Barack Obama’s White House portrait preserves the professional standard.

 

Kehinde Wiley is the target of much of the criticism, specifically his previous works.  Wiley is known for placing black figures in place of famous figures in Western art. Two portraits in particular, reimaginings of the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, drew the ire of many.  

 

In the biblical story, Judith is a Jewish woman who charms Holofernes, an enemy general, to gain his trust.  She is then given access to his tent where she beheads him. Wiley puts a black woman in the place of Judith and a white woman in the place of Holofernes.  This context is often left out of complaints about the paintings. Many view the paintings as racist.

 

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Obama Couple’s Portraits Draw Attention: Controversy