Published: Wed, February 14, 2018
Global | By Shelia Dennis

The New Obama Portraits Definitely Brought Out the Internet's Best Meme Game

The New Obama Portraits Definitely Brought Out the Internet's Best Meme Game

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled Monday, but not everyone was happy with what they saw.

Opinions on art, like politics, are passionate and fiercely held. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below. It was the picturesque background of Barack Obama's photo.

The portrait of the former president was made by artist Kehinde Wiley, who is a Yale University-trained painter. She was among a short list of possible artists submitted to the Obamas for their selection.

The artist said, "I paint American people, and I tell American stories through the paintings I create".

Sherald thanked her subject and explained the way she transforms her portraits of American people from individual subjects into archetypes.

The Baltimore-based artist rendered Michelle Obama in her trademark grayscale, with only a few splashes of coral, pink and yellow, against an eggshell blue backdrop. Do you share that view?

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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.

Sherald does a couple of things that may lessen the sense of verisimilitude.

His portraits initially depicted African-American men against rich textile or wallpaper backgrounds whose patterns he has likened to abstractions of sperm. One wonders how the years in the White House-which, Michelle Obama reminded the country, had been built by slaves-affected her. Flanking their portrait, the former first lady and Sherald revealed the artwork before a thousand phone cams and a livestream.

Kennicott: This all depends on the objective of the portrait.

Wiley, an established artist whose work is held by prominent museums worldwide, has produced a characteristically flat, nearly polished surface, with intensely rich colors and a busy, sumptuous background that recalls his interest in portraiture.

Formal portraits, however, are a small subset of portraiture, which is wide open for experimentation. "They are innovative. They are a shout-out to the Obamas' beautifully unconventional way of bending the rules".

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The new art injects color into the visual timeline of presidents and first lady's and adds to the shift in diversity at the National Portrait Gallery. Obama herself emphasized that she did not come from the sort of family that had had members sit for portraits.

Kennicott: It's a powerful and important social statement. What did the portraits mean to you, particularly if you are African-American or of African descent? She apologized to all the artists they considered, for putting them through a daunting selection process that included 2-on-1 interviews in the Oval Office.

Sherald, like the former president, spoke highly of Michelle Obama, describing her as "a human being with integrity, intelligence, confidence and compassion". There's a lot to see if you let yourself look. She focuses on African-Americans and renders them with great psychological intimacy.

Art historian Paul Staiti says the Obama portraits - full of color and unique concepts - are fresh and exciting in a field of generally staid presidential portraiture.

However, the portraits received mixed reactions online and the art community has leveled some scathing critiques. As I marveled at the memory of a reflective president, the European wire service reporter sitting next to me sighed, took off her glasses, and wiped her eyes. "Sherald's approach is more about artistic expression and composition than about realism". It's true that the two look similar aesthetically, but it's far more likely that Beyoncé was influenced by Wiley's work, not the other way around.

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