By Darren Johnson
I originally was taken aback by the recent unveiling of the official portraits of the Obamas, to be displayed with the rest of the former Presidential and First Lady pictures in Washington.
“What is this?” I thought aloud, looking at photos of these two paintings.
But that’s exactly the feeling art is supposed to convey. And these two paintings — by acclaimed artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively — show high technical ability while also capturing the imagination.
The Wiley portrait of Obama can be seen left, and, at first, it resembles an awkward photoshop. What’s Obama doing surrounded by ivy? 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. His face is resolute and realistic, his posture conveys his personality. Perhaps the ivy represents his education. He’s centered in the portrait, perhaps showing that he is a part of something bigger. It’s well done and interesting.
I may like Sherald’s work even more — it’s not a contest between these two artists, but the full effect hasn’t sunk in yet. Michelle Obama is portrayed in a historical context. Her face almost appears in a style more common in the 19th century, especially how black women were presented in art, but her dress is modern. She’s not centered in her painting, but rising above the center. This acknowledges the hard work African-Americans have made in this country in the past, while giving us a more hopeful future.
Very well-done, artists! And their selection shows that the Obamas have taste. It was good to remember this past presidency with the unveilings. I am sure we’ll hear a lot from the Obamas in the years ahead.