Thursday, February 15, 2018

The response to the Obama Portraits

I found the whole unveiling of the Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherrald and the subsequent reaction to be quite fascinating.

The first official presidential portraits of an African American President and his First Lady by African American artists generated quite a 'response'.

Barack Obama, born 1961,  Forty-fourth president, 2009–2017
by Kehinde Wiley
It's like everybody is suddenly a portrait expert.

Plus there all these overtones and messages apparently embedded into the portraits

It felt a bit as if one could almost do a sociological analysis of America based on how people responded.

So I've done a round-up of some of the articles that were published and tried to categorise them. Interspersed by some of the comments made at the ceremony.

One of the interesting things is how the art journals have been pushed to one side in Google rankings by all the major newsprint publications who were all desperate to have a view, or two or three....

Start with this one - Presidential portraits: from Washington to Obama – in pictures - which provides a visual record of the portraits of past presidents - to provide some context!
You do wonder at the state of portraiture in the USA when looking at these portraits prior to the Obamas

Plusthe Unveiling Ceremony - if you care to watch. Speeches towards the end are interesting.



The Obamas chose Wiley and Sherald after considering portfolios of some 20 artists. The Obamas interviewed a few at the White House, but ultimately decided on the two contemporary portraitists with whom they each felt a connection. Both artists’ work shows a commitment to making portraits of people who have traditionally been marginalized. Time

How different is this?!!!


Why are they so different from what has gone before? (leaving aside how boring some of the 
portrait artists are who have painted past portraits of Presidents!)

One thing is certain - Presidential Portraiture will never be quite the same again. I can't wait for the next one ;)
I think the question could be asked the other way round. How come all previous portraits have been so anodyne and just plain boring!
The image is a striking departure from the staid presentation of many of the other 43 Presidents in the “America’s Presidents” exhibit. And for that reason, it feels like an essential addition to American history. Time
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama
born 1964, Born Chicago, Illinois
by Amy Sherrald

What's the meaning behind the portrait?

What do the flowers mean? What does the dress mean? What influenced the portraits. There's a mix of questions and a mix of answers....
The flora in the portrait represent the stations of Obama’s scattered personal and ancestral past—blue lilies for Kenya; jasmine for Hawaii; chrysanthemums for Chicago

Judgements on the Portraits

What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege President Obama
If you think I'm making a big deal of this here's an example of articles about past portraits of former Presidents

How to see the portraits


I think one thing people have forgotten to comment on is just how many people are likely to come and view these portraits. I think there will be another batch of articles some way down the line commenting on how many visitors they have generated. Then the interesting question will be is it because of who they are - or because of how they were painted - or because of who painted them or all of those factors bundled up together. I vote for the latter!
  • Former President Barack Obama's portrait is in the America's Presidents gallery on the museum's second floor. 
  • Former First Lady Michelle Obama's portrait is featured in the Recent Acquisitions gallery on the museum's first floor.

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