President Barack Obama’s official Portrait by Kehinde Wiley was unveiled at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Monday February 12th, 2018. The portrait has been met with criticism by some, and applauded by others. I for one am a huge fan of Wiley’s portrait. That said, I wanted to try and wrap my mind around some of the controversy that I’d seen on social media from those who felt it wasn’t ‘on par’ with the tone and tenor of previous Presidential Portraits. So I decided to do some research…
What I discovered is that President Barack Obama wasn’t the first to buck classic portraiture for his official portrait. Both John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton are represented by the avant-garde artist of their day. As is frequently the case, stories on social media are tailored to reinforce a specific point of view. Namely, that Obama was wack for choosing such an outrageous artist that didn’t represent the traditional norms of the office. When taking a closer look at the ‘norms’, one can clearly see that there’s been a broader range of painting styles presented at the Smithsonian over the years. Follow the link below to view all of the Presidential Portraits from the last century.
I’ve been a fan of Kehinde Wiley for over a decade, and was thrilled to see his paintings on the tv show EMPIRE. It’s a brilliant choice to have a fictional character like Lucious Lyon, a black music mogul, fill his home with the art of such a highly regarded black artist, thus supporting those at the top of his community.
Here are a few more examples of Wiley’s work.
As an artist, I absolutely love the magnificent size of his paintings, as well as the lusciousness of the background behind his subjects. His ability to beautifully render skin tones is out of this world, and to quote Obama: I was struck by the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege. Kehinde juxtaposes contemporary urban culture with centuries old postures and wallpaper like backgrounds.
When I composed my own painting of President Barack Obama in 2011, I also chose a lush green background to represent his emotional life. I wanted my image to be reminiscent of a gothic stain glass window with the presidential seal as his halo. My overall theme was about the religious fervor surrounding the election of our first African American President. The ionic column represents democracy, with the red and blue states being represented on their respective sides of the column, blue on the left, red on the right.
For Wiley, he wove chrysanthemum into the greenery of the background (the official flower of Chicago), and Jasmine for Hawaii, as well as African Blues symbolic of Obama’s heritage. Like the fictional character Lucious Lyon, President Barack Obama chose one of the finest artist from the black community to forever represent the first African American President in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. It was a bold choice that I absolutely applaud, and I believe it will certainly pass the test of time. Great men must be ahead of the curve, not behind it, paving the way for others to follow.