The National Portrait Gallery unveiled their latest additions: official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Kehinde Wiley, whose gripping work inserts black figures in modern streetwear or haute couture into classical contexts, was selected to paint President Obama. Amy Sherald, a Baltimore-based artist who paints black figures in shades of gray against colorful backgrounds and patterns, was chosen to paint Mrs. Obama.
Mrs. Obama’s portrait was revealed first. She is painted seated, in a Milly dress, with her chin resting on her hand. Sherald said at the unveiling that the dress called to mind both Mondrian squares and patchwork quilts made by rural black communities.
Sherald’s use of shades of gray to reflect black skin tones challenges the viewer to reevaluate the perceived synonymousness of color and race, particularly with regard to art. Like Wiley, Sherald chooses models from people she sees on the street. She photographs them and paints them against brightly colored or patterned backgrounds, accentuating the monochromatic central
figure. In a 2016 interview, Sherald said,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“I basically
paint people who I want to see exist in the world, but then I also want to creative a narrative that’s extricated from a dominant historical narrative. Self-narration is something that we didn’t, as black people, have the opportunity for.” This objective is particularly resonant with regard to her work with Mrs. Obama, who has had to live into a prescriptive role while also creating a new narrative for herself.
In her remarks, Mrs. Obama expressed gratitude to those who came before her in her journey.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“I don’t think there is anybody in my family who has ever had a portrait done, let alone a portrait that will be hanging in the National Gallery. But all those folks who helped me be here today, they are with us physically and they are with us in spirit.”
Mrs. Obama continued,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“I am thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place, and they will look up and see someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great institution.”
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