Monday morning Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former president Barack Obama was unveiled at The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Wiley is a native of New York who has focused most of his work on African-Americans in highly naturalistic depictions.
Wiley depicts Obama in a seated position with facial expressions that echo the pages of a fashion spread. The popular seated pose that Obama is depicted in can be seen similar to the 1805 painting of Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart.
These seated choices since the beginning of presidential paintings have revealed a no-frills character. One could also argue that the seat position reveals a “for the people” persona that contrasts the standing portrait style that past presidents like George Washington have been depicted in. While the viewer may first look upon Obama as the subject, the real importance seems to come from the environment that Obama exists in. The plants that surround Obama are not only a contrasting location due to their placement but in addition, the nature of plants on their own.
Plants, unlike most of the settings in presidential paintings, are ever-changing aspects of society that die, re-blossom and so forth. The changing nature of plants seems to speak to the changing nature of our political atmosphere. While comparing this portrait of Obama to Wiley’s former work, one would see his likeness to floral backgrounds and diverse array of colors compounded with photorealism.
Yet while the perching flowers behind Obama seem to be obstructed due to his chair, it is his presence that is actually being obstructed. Floral background and Obama seem to read more so as a collage than a painting. This discourse in Obama sitting and the background seems to speak to his eight years in office and where we sit in our current political atmosphere. Similar to the growth of plants we do not have as much control in change that we see.
The American Psychological Association’s survey on stress in American reports that 72 percent of Democrats have said their stress has sourced from the outcome of the election, while 59 percent of Republicans have said that their stress stems the anticipation of the political future.
As a millennial, most of my counterparts receive their news on their phones, but in a way is Wiley speaking to emotional vulnerability of our society?
Regardless of party association, the potential and unknown direction of the flowers connect to the unknown and apprehensive steps we take as a society while the seated nature of Obama can be seen as this level of uncertainty that a man who was the leader of our country slowly gets shadowed and unseen by this chaos but with him things that we know.