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raceAhead: Why The Obama Portraits Matter

February 13, 2018, 6:22 PM UTC

The official portraits of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were unveiled yesterday at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

The first black First Couple have now been enshrined in history: One, the son of a voluntary African immigrant; the other, a descendant of slaves. Both now hold places of honor among slave-holding founding fathers.

It was quite a moment.

The portraits are stunning, partly because they are so different from any official portraiture that came before, but also because they offer an interpretation of two historic figures through a distinctly African American lens.

Both painters— Kehinde Wiley, for Mr. Obama’s portrait and Amy Sherald, for Mrs. Obama — are black; both have explored themes of race in their work. For both, it is the opportunity of a lifetime, but particularly for Sherald, who had not yet found the acclaim of the better-known Wiley. The heart transplant survivor brings a careful process to her work. “There has got to be something about them that only I can see,” she told The New York Times. Her portrait of Michelle Obama fits neatly into her current style, of African American subjects, painted with gray-toned skin, in colorful clothes on a flat plane. They often meet the viewer’s gaze. “They exist in a place of the past, the present and the future,” she says. “It’s like something I sense with my spirit more than my mind.”

Barack Obama’s portrait will be even more of a standout at the National Portrait Gallery, where all the presidential pictures are now assembled. (The first lady collection is still incomplete, go figure.) The former president sits in front of a backdrop of greenery and flowers, and with the exception of his traditional chair, there is no trace of Oval Office finery, flags, or patriotic ephemera.

Now This News put together a 35-second video of all the presidential portraits from Washington to Obama, to make the distinction even more clear.

Like any work of art, people will bring their own unique perspective to these paintings. But because these are not ordinary times, and these are not ordinary subjects, expect the commentary from the cheap seats to be more divisive than most.

The portraits may be stunning — but they are also beautiful. My best advice is to sit with them awhile. There’s a lot to see if you let yourself look.

I admire the statement the Obamas made by choosing Wiley and Sherald. The works show the honor, dignity, and achievement of the subjects, though in distinctly different ways. The portrayals ring just as true as those who work within the confines of a more familiar canon. Perhaps, more so.

For now, the paintings are the final, inclusive footnotes of a presidency like no other. Let’s see what comes next.

On Point

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The Woke Leader

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If any woman is being beaten in her home, that’s an affront to all of us.
Donna Ferrato