When artist Amy Sherald and Michelle Obama unveiled Sherald’s portrait of the former first lady at the National Portrait Gallery Monday morning, there was polite applause as the public got its first look at a regal-looking subject wearing a Michelle Smith-designed, mostly black-and-white dress in front of a sky-blue background.
But the reaction minutes later as artist Kehinde Wiley and President Barack Obama unveiled his portrait was noticeably different. The massive, 7-foot-tall portrait elicited a more visceral, electric reaction. It shows the former president seated on a wooden chair atop and in front of a wild tangle of leaves featuring symbolic flowers arranged around its subject.
There was no special light on it, yet it seemed almost lit from behind or within. The colors popped and though the president wears a stern expression, there’s joy in the almost enchanted forest-esque background.
The occasion was historic on several fronts. Not only are the Obamas, of course, the country’s first African-American president and first lady, but Sherald and Wiley are the first black artists chosen to paint any presidential portrait in the gallery’s historic collection, which holds more than 1,600 likenesses of U.S. presidents.
And although no mention was made of it publicly Monday, Wiley is also the first out gay artist to be selected for a presidential portrait.
The comments, as one would expect, were jovial and occasionally humorous. Obama said he tried to convince Wiley to give him less gray hair and smaller ears but said, “Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow that.” He said he was more successful convincing the artist to eschew the “partridges, scepters” and “robes” that adorn some subjects in previous Wiley works.
“I told him I’ve got enough political problems without making me look like Napoleon,” Obama said.
He also joked about Wiley working at a disadvantage compared to Sherald because his subject was “less becoming, not as fly.”
Wiley deflected in his own comments.
“How do I explain that a lot of that is just simply not true,” he said.
Obama also said he and Wiley bonded over their similar backgrounds — both were raised primarily by their mothers; their African fathers were largely absent from their lives.
Obama said he appreciated the way Wiley allows his subjects, often everyday people he meets on streets, to be elevated.
“What I was struck by when I saw his portraits was a degree to which they challenge the abuse of power and privilege,” Obama said. “The way he would take extraordinary care and precision .. and recognize the beauty and grace and the dignity of people who were for so long invisible in our lives and put them on a grand scale. To force us to stop and see them in ways that so often they are not.”
He said that resonated with his philosophy of politics that they not be from “the top down” and “not simply about celebrating the high and the mighty.”
Wiley said his urge to paint, often driven by chance encounters, was driven largely by “corrective” endeavors.
“Growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles and going to the museums in L.A., there weren’t too many people who looked like me in those museums,” Wiley said. “My purpose as a painter has been to project out into the world this urge, this itch, this desire to see something corrected. It seems silly. You’re taking this hairy stick and nudging things into being, but it’s not. This is consequently who we as a society decide to celebrate. This is our humanity. This is our ability to say, ‘I matter, I was here.’”
Wiley pointed out the symbolism of the flowers seen in the portrait — African blue lilies to represent Obama’s Kenyan-born father; jasmine for Hawaii where Obama was born; and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, where Obama’s political career began.
“Mr. President, I thank you for giving me a chance and for giving this nation a chance to experience your splendor on a global scale,” Wiley said.
Wiley, born in Los Angeles in 1977, gained a following with what the New York Times called his “crisp, glossy, life-size paintings of young African-American men dressed in hip-hop styles but depicted in the old master manner of European royal portraits.”
More recently he has started painting women as well as models from Brazil, India, Nigeria and Senegal creating what the Times called a “collective image of a global black aristocracy.”
George M. Johnson, writing for the Grio, says Wiley’s sexuality is an important part of the portrait.
“News coverage of (Monday’s) unveiling noted Wiley as ‘the first black artist’ to paint a presidential portrait, completely erasing his queer identity,” Johnson wrote. “Although many will see this as small or a part of some ‘gay agenda,’ it is neither. Black queer people have historically faced the erasure of their identity in order to be accepted in black spaces and spaces at large. It’s a byproduct of white supremacy which continues to place us in harm’s way.”
Johnson also said Wiley’s sexuality is as important to the narrative as his being black.
“The omission of that tells only part of the story,” he wrote. “A revisionist history black queer people are only now unpacking with many of our legends getting their due honor inclusive of identity long after death.”