Painting the Powerful: Nigerian-American, Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Obama Breaks the Internet

As Team USA were breaking records at the Winter Olympics, the Obamas were managing to break the internet yet again, as the Smithsonian unveiled the first portraits of a presidential couple to be painted by black artists, at the gallery.

The unveiling of the official presidential likeness of Barack Obama and the former First Lady, Michelle Obama was met this week with euphoria.

As Team USA were breaking records at the Winter Olympics, the Obamas were managing to break the internet yet again.

Why is this portrait iconic?

Not only are the Obamas the first African-American Presidential couple to be enshrined in the collection, but the painters hand-picked by the former President and First Lady are African-American as well, marking the first time black artists have been selected to paint a Presidential couple for the gallery. With Kehinde Wiley representing Barack Obama and Amy Sherald representing Michelle Obama, both artists have consistently addressed the politics of race in their past work, by depicting images of African-Americans in contemporary western art.

Mr. Wiley, a Los Angeles native of West African heritage, is particularly notorious for achieving this feat.

He typically draws inspiration from classical European paintings of noblemen, royalty and aristocrats. His finished products often portray people of colour “who have traditionally been marginalised” in this context, assuming the poses of colonial masters.

In describing his art, “viewers unaccustomed to seeing black figures in seascapes might identify them as 21st-century migrants fleeing Africa, or a 19th-century slave ship, or modern-day bathers and fishermen.” Born in Los Angeles to a Nigerian father and an African-American mother, at the age of 12 Wiley was among a group of 50 students who travelled to Russia to study the country’s language and art. He went on to study Art at the Art Institute of San Francisco and was awarded a Master’s degree at the prestigious Yale.

Ms. Amy Sherald on the other hand typically portrays African-Americans doing everyday things. The Baltimore native draws inspiration from cultural influences, science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler, and surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Justin T. Gallerson describes her subjects as it “exists in a place of the past, the present, and the future”, Ms. Sherald describes her work as “something I sense with my spirit more than my mind.”

Kehinde Wiley portrays Obama sat in a chair with fine wood finishing that represents a man in charge, his business attire pays tribute to his once ‘POTUS’ status. The ex-President’s facial expression is far from what we saw at the White House; as he sits tensely in his ‘thrown of grace’ we can read a melancholic expression on his face, coupled with some hard thinking. The surrounding greenery has sprouts of flowers, with jasmine echoing his place of birth, Hawaii, whilst the African blue lilies represent his African heritage of Kenya, where his father was born. The City of Chicago also has a place in this portrait taking the form of chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), where his political career began, and where he met his wife.

As for Michelle Obama, Amy Sherald stuck to her unique grey skin palette, a colour with complicated racial associations. Unlike her husband, her facial expression represents what we saw at the White House, a strong-voiced personality. Her expression forms an authoritative motive, with her demeanor showing aeons of handwork and persistence that portrays a final form of grace.