RaceAhead: Why The Obama Portraits Matter

RaceAhead: Why The Obama Portraits Matter

Former US President Barack Obama joked about his ears and grey hair and praised his wife Michelle Obama's "hotness" at the unveiling of the couple's official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Monday.

Sherald says she and the former first lady looked at a few dresses before picking the one she ultimately wore.

Part of what Mr Obama saw in Wiley's work was the capacity to elevate ordinary people to the level of royalty, those "so often out of sight and out of mind".

"This portrait is unbelievable, but I really hope there's another version with the tan suit and a cigarette", one user commented.

The jasmine flowers represent Hawaii, Obama's birthplace; chrysanthemums to symbolize Chicago, where he and his family lived before the White House; and African blue lilies to represent his Kenyan heritage. His work, Obama said, like our democracy, "is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up".

Sherald's strength is in teasing out the crux of a person, and she's very good at exposing a subject's most intimate truth through subliminal signaling.

"Ok, now draw me like I'm sitting in a large hedge". "As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment", she wrote on Instagram. She also makes a point of painting "civilians".

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Sherald, like the former president, spoke highly of Michelle Obama, describing her as "a human being with integrity, intelligence, confidence and compassion". But at the lectern, introducing the six-by-five-foot " 'Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, ' oil on linen, 2018", Sherald said that the shapes reminded her of Mondrian, and the diligent quilt-making of the black women artisans of Gee's Bend, Alabama. They truly must be seen - at least online - to fully appreciate.

"She's known for a lot of things and one of them is fashion, so I knew that was important", Sherald says.

"I would have been one of those athletes whose heart just stops and no one knows why", Sherald told the magazine.

Politico also suggested a hidden political message in Obama's choice of Smith as the gown's designer. His portrait is housed in another room of the Gallery, but under the same roof of those who show George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who once owned slaves.

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.

But ultimately, it presents something new. As with many works of art, this was meant to be provocative ("I think at its best what art is doing is setting up a set of provocations", Wiley said in a 2015 interview).

Barton Girdwood produced the broadcast version of this story.

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