The official portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Obama were unveiled at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and though theirs are part of a long-held tradition for most former presidents, theirs have amassed unprecedented attention.
The ceremony saw the presidential couple and their selected portraitists take the stage; each of the four had the opportunity to address their experiences. In addition to being the first African American couple to have their portraits done, they are the first to have African American painters compose both portraits.
Mr. Obama’s portrait places him amidst vibrant botanicals, whilst Mrs. Obama’s sees her against a demure blue. Though the reception for both has been immensely varied, their words at the ceremony make a resounding argument for the value of both works.
There was an undeniable nostalgia to watching Mr. Obama speak; his words were littered with dry humor but were nothing short of powerful in their primary message. He began with a heartfelt “We miss you guys,” a sentiment loudly reciprocated by the present audience. He thanked Amy Sherald, who painted his wife, for capturing as he stated, “the grace, and beauty, and intelligence, and hotness, of the woman that I love.”
He detailed having bonded with his artist, Kehinde Wiley, with whom he shares the experience of being raised by American mothers and dealing with the absence of their African fathers, often searching for something that the absence made apparent. His appreciation for Wiley’s work derives from the “degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege.” In Wiley’s work, he saw the recognition of beauty and dignity in people “who are so often invisible in our lives.”
In his own speech, Wiley regarded museums as guardians of our culture, as the exemplification of what society stood for. He further noted that in visiting these museums as a child, he rarely saw artworks of people that looked like him. His art seeks to correct for some of that. He added that he has been “trying to find places where people who happen to look like me do feel accepted.”
Mrs. Obama relayed that she was “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 they will see an image of someone who looks like them.” She recognizes all of the women and people who have come before her, and that “their dreams and aspirations were limited by the color of their skin.” Her choice in Amy Sherald is in part caused by Sherald’s ability to have remained strong through hardship, and in part by the uniqueness of her subject matter.
Sherald recognized these subjects as American people with American stories. She saw something more symbolic in her work; the faces she paints are often ambiguous and greyscale so as to break the associations of race to her subjects and to make them more relatable. The dress Mrs. Obama is painted in is designed by MILLY and reminded Sherald of the abstract quilts made by small, remote black communities in Alabama. She stated, “The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us. Because what you represent to this country is an ideal.”
Of her portraits and of her experience, Sherald said, “I like to think they hold the same possibilities of being read universally.” However aesthetically they are perceived, the portraits speak to a larger message of leaving a legacy through which others can find inspiration for themselves.