Let’s Talk About the Official Obama Portraits


It is Black History Month Year 2018, and we are being blessed with the drop of Black Panther later on this week. Wakanda, we are coming!!! This morning, the unveiling of the much-anticipated official portraits for President (always my president) Barack Obama and Forever FLOTUS Michelle Obama happened.

Each one of them picked a Black artist to put them on canvas: Barack chose Kehinde Wiley, and Amy Sherald was Michelle’s choice. This was important, because they are making room for Black art to shine. However we may feel about each piece, the significance of this moment cannot be underspoken. The first Black President and First Lady chose Black artists to paint their legacy. IT. IS. BEAUTIFUL. *cries in onyx*

Now, these pieces already have people losing their minds all over social media. I am no art critic, and really not anything remotely close to an expert. I’m just a chick with eyes and strong opinions. I read a piece about the portraits that used the word “phantasmagorical” and I was like “oh girl, this ain’t the one for me.”

Anywho, let’s talk about Barack Obama’s portrait.

President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde got my man, Barry, looking smooth as ever with his salt and pepper hair. His lining is crisp as always and the suit is lint free. Looking dead ass serious and about his business. The detailing here is striking to me. You see the wrinkles around Barack’s eyes, brought on from 8 years of running a country that resented him. And those flowers around him? Turns out they’re African blue lilies are for Kenya, where Barack’s dad is from. The jasmines represent his home state of Hawaii and chrysanthemums are there because they are the official flower of Chicago (HOMETOWNNNNNN).

I think he looks hella presidential, and him surrounded by foliage feels very much like other Kehinde pieces I’ve seen. I love it. It’s stunning. It’s a feast for the eyes. The colors and texture grab my attention.

And then let’s talk about Michelle Obama’s Portrait.

Michelle Obama

I was most excited to see what Michelle’s painting would be like. Amy has our FLOTUS looking confident, serious and queenly. The dress is stunning and her hair is LAID. Some karats are peaking out by her ear and she is against a baby blue background.

I think there are 3 main reactions to this painting:

1. IT IS EVERYTHING GOOD IN THE WORLD AND I WILL CRY FOR FIVE DAYS OVER IT.

2. This is beautiful but I don’t love it.

3. I don’t like Michelle’s portrait but I will not say that out loud, because: Black History Month.

I am number 2. I wanted to love it. I really did, but I don’t.

I think the painting is nice but I don’t think it does her justice. I wasn’t expecting it to look like a 3D version of her, but there is something that feels incomplete about this work.

Amy Sherald’s style is to paint Black skin in grayer tones as commentary, so I get that it’s why Michelle’s skin looks as it does. However, the entire painting, being so muted in color feels like it flattens her. The baby blue behind her, without texture feels like she’s floating, which is kinda weird. I don’t like that the most interesting colors in the piece are in her dress.

When voicing this critique, people keep saying it’s just Amy’s style. But below is another painting of hers, which I think has more life, and is more vibrant.

Amy Sherald piece

I LOVE this piece.

Amy uses strong hues that are missing completely from her portrait of Michelle Obama, and for me, that’s disappointing because FLOTUS is a dynamo. The colors used for her portrait feel so flat.

My other thing is that I don’t think it looks like Michelle in the face. I know Amy isn’t a photorealist but still. Without context, would I automatically think this was Shellie LaVaughn? I’m not sure. Plus, where are her signature arms? They look so puny here. Where are those biceps we have fallen in love with and envy?

I dunno. The piece feels unfinished, next to Barack’s. And yes, I know they aren’t supposed to be complementary. Still. All the rich melanin in his is making me have FOMO for hers.

Again, this is an important moment. Michelle Obama’s Instagram talked about how big this is, and how no one in her family has ever had a portrait done. The Black boy from Hawaii and the Black girl from Illinois will forever have their likeness hanging in the National Gallery. It’s enough to make one weep in dream and joy. I would still buy prints of BOTH of these and proudly hang them up. Gimme tshirts, even.

So take the critique with that in mind. We still celebrate this moment, even as we debatethe art. Props to Amy and Kehinde.

I’m looking forward to going to the National Gallery to see both up close.



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