They might not be living in the White House anymore but Barack and Michelle Obama are still very much present in D.C. The former President and First Lady attended a special ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, where portraits of the pair had been commissioned for the museum’s permanent presidential collection.
It was a notably historic affair, as they’re the first African American couple to be included in the collection. Not only that, but for the first time in history, the portraits were painted by African American artists. Kehinde Wiley was selected to paint Barack’s image, while Michelle chose Baltimore artist, Amy Sherald. Speaking at the event, the 54-year-old said that she hopes the portrait will inspire young girls of colour to achieve their full potential. “They will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them, hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” she said. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”
Barack’s image is particularly striking, not because of the colour of his skin but because of the style in which Wiley depicted him. The image shows the 44th President sitting upon a wooden chair in front of a wall of flowers. It’s in striking contrast to the other former presidents in the Smithsonian, who were painted in an office setting, amid books and literature. Wiley revealed the symbolism behind the flowers behind Barack, “In a very symbolic way, what I’m doing is charting his path on earth through those plants that weave their way. There’s a fight going on between he in the foreground and the plants that are trying to announce themselves underneath his feet. Who gets to be the star of the show? The story or the man who inhabits that story?”
The public response to the portraits has been mixed, to say the least. While many people on Twitter have been praising the break from tradition and the artists’ vivid use of colour, others feel it’s a bit too out there. A third, fairly popular, stance is that it’s just plain confusing. Tweeting about the portrait, CNN analyst Asha Rangappa said, “It’s a wonderful likeness and the detail and color are great but I think the pose is a little weird and also why is he randomly seated in a suit on a chair in a bush? It looks like he got lost in the hedge maze in The Shining.”