The importance of the Obamas being painted by black artists

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The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has collected portraits of every United States president, painted by an artist of their choice, every presidential term since 1968. Once their final term is over, each president is given the opportunity to look through dozens of artists’ portfolios and select one to paint this official portrait. When it was Barack and Michelle’s turn, they chose two black artists: Barack chose Brooklyn native Kehinde Wiley and Michelle chose Baltimore-based Amy Sherald. Their decisions were not only meaningful in terms of giving artists of color a major opportunity, but reflects the importance of this representation given the history of how black identity — both the Obamas’ specifically and black identity in general — have been portrayed in American art.

As the first black president, as well as a scandal-free one, Obama arguably had to put a disproportionate amount of effort into the way he presented himself to the public. For the first time, a black man was leading the free world. A person historically subjected to discrimination and mockery was now making executive decisions that affected every American, regardless of race, gender, or class. Subconsciously or not, many white people still believed that black people were not fit to take on such a role — convinced that they’re lazy, stupid, and not good enough. The whole Obama family, therefore, has always functioned under a type of scrutiny no other First Family had had to endure — from the Obama daughters being labeled classless for what they wore to a Thanksgiving Day event, to the never-ending string of derogatory comments made about the first lady’s weight and appearance, to the birther movement, the first family’s blackness alone made them increasingly scrutinized. When we examine the ways black people have been depicted throughout American history, this view should come as no surprise.

White artists have illustrated black people in offensive way, frequently depicting them with exaggeratedly dark skin and oversized clown-red lips, engaging in stereotypical actions like eating watermelon or lazing around on a cotton plantation. From advertisements to newspaper cartoons — and even in real life in decades past in the form of America’s then-favorite form of entertainment, minstrel shows — caricatures of blackface were the most popularized depiction of black people in the mainstream media. These depictions even resulted in still-common and recognizable figures, like the “Mammy” and “Pickaninny,” and everyday children’s cartoons on television series as popular as the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes.       

Given how ingrained racist imagery of the black community is in American pop culture, it’s unsurprising that the Obamas’ prejudiced opponents often referred back to those offensive tropes to express their criticism of them. The most recent offensive illustration that went viral was a political cartoon that compared the former and current first ladies. The image depicted Michelle Obama as extremely masculine and ape-like, reminiscent of longstanding stereotypes about black female bodies. In spite of two successful presidential campaigns and terms, the public’s view of the Obamas is still not immune to racism.

So when the occasion arose to dictate how Barack and Michelle would officially be depicted in history (or, at least up on the walls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery), they had to be smart about who would best represent them and paint the lasting image of the first black presidency. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are great choices.

Kehinde Wiley’s work generally takes classic Old Masters portraits and replaces the wealthy, white subjects with characters he was more accustomed to seeing walking around his own New York City neighborhood growing up. Most of his work features men in jerseys, hoodies, and timbs in poses parallel to those of such classic portraits. He also replaces the dark, simple backgrounds with vibrant colors and elaborate decorations. All of his subjects are black. Wiley’s art provides a depiction of black Americans in a way they rarely ever get to see themselves: as heroic.

Amy Sherald’s work tends to consist of a single black subject in the center of a vertical painting. She tends to use light pastel colors, except for the actual skin tone of the black person depicted, for which she uses a graphite-colored gray. Her subjects look directly at the viewer, forcing them to confront each other. Sherald’s art gives her audience no choice but to see the humanity in the subject at whom they are looking, and understand that they are real people.

Wiley and Sherald both normalize the positive presence of blackness in art. They both aim to place black people at the center of their pieces in a way that makes them just as visible, as understood, as empathized with as any white subject would be and has been throughout history. Sherald and Wiley reveal aspects of black identity commonly missing from artwork, free from victimization or mockery, and bring to light a much-needed representation.

The Obamas’ legacy will inevitably be rooted in the fact that they were the first black family to lead the United States. Despite the lasting assumption that black representation in politics, especially the White House, was unfathomable, the Obama family proved everyone wrong. They are role models and heroes to black people across the country, and it is only fitting that artists like Wiley and Shepard should be appointed to paint them as such.

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