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Let’s Talk About the Official Obama Portraits

It is Black History Month Year 2018, and we are being blessed with the drop of Black Panther later on this week. Wakanda, we are coming!!! This morning, the unveiling of the much-anticipated official portraits for President (always my president) Barack Obama and Forever FLOTUS Michelle Obama happened.

Each one of them picked a Black artist to put them on canvas: Barack chose Kehinde Wiley, and Amy Sherald was Michelle’s choice. This was important, because they are making room for Black art to shine. However we may feel about each piece, the significance of this moment cannot be underspoken. The first Black President and First Lady chose Black artists to paint their legacy. IT. IS. BEAUTIFUL. *cries in onyx*

Now, these pieces already have people losing their minds all over social media. I am no art critic, and really not anything remotely close to an expert. I’m just a chick with eyes and strong opinions. I read a piece about the portraits that used the word “phantasmagorical” and I was like “oh girl, this ain’t the one for me.”

Anywho, let’s talk about Barack Obama’s portrait.

President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde got my man, Barry, looking smooth as ever with his salt and pepper hair. His lining is crisp as always and the suit is lint free. Looking dead ass serious and about his business. The detailing here is striking to me. You see the wrinkles around Barack’s eyes, brought on from 8 years of running a country that resented him. And those flowers around him? Turns out they’re African blue lilies are for Kenya, where Barack’s dad is from. The jasmines represent his home state of Hawaii and chrysanthemums are there because they are the official flower of Chicago (HOMETOWNNNNNN).

I think he looks hella presidential, and him surrounded by foliage feels very much like other Kehinde pieces I’ve seen. I love it. It’s stunning. It’s a feast for the eyes. The colors and texture grab my attention.

And then let’s talk about Michelle Obama’s Portrait.

Michelle Obama

I was most excited to see what Michelle’s painting would be like. Amy has our FLOTUS looking confident, serious and queenly. The dress is stunning and her hair is LAID. Some karats are peaking out by her ear and she is against a baby blue background.

I think there are 3 main reactions to this painting:

1. IT IS EVERYTHING GOOD IN THE WORLD AND I WILL CRY FOR FIVE DAYS OVER IT.

2. This is beautiful but I don’t love it.

3. I don’t like Michelle’s portrait but I will not say that out loud, because: Black History Month.

I am number 2. I wanted to love it. I really did, but I don’t.

I think the painting is nice but I don’t think it does her justice. I wasn’t expecting it to look like a 3D version of her, but there is something that feels incomplete about this work.

Amy Sherald’s style is to paint Black skin in grayer tones as commentary, so I get that it’s why Michelle’s skin looks as it does. However, the entire painting, being so muted in color feels like it flattens her. The baby blue behind her, without texture feels like she’s floating, which is kinda weird. I don’t like that the most interesting colors in the piece are in her dress.

When voicing this critique, people keep saying it’s just Amy’s style. But below is another painting of hers, which I think has more life, and is more vibrant.

Amy Sherald piece

I LOVE this piece.

Amy uses strong hues that are missing completely from her portrait of Michelle Obama, and for me, that’s disappointing because FLOTUS is a dynamo. The colors used for her portrait feel so flat.

My other thing is that I don’t think it looks like Michelle in the face. I know Amy isn’t a photorealist but still. Without context, would I automatically think this was Shellie LaVaughn? I’m not sure. Plus, where are her signature arms? They look so puny here. Where are those biceps we have fallen in love with and envy?

I dunno. The piece feels unfinished, next to Barack’s. And yes, I know they aren’t supposed to be complementary. Still. All the rich melanin in his is making me have FOMO for hers.

Again, this is an important moment. Michelle Obama’s Instagram talked about how big this is, and how no one in her family has ever had a portrait done. The Black boy from Hawaii and the Black girl from Illinois will forever have their likeness hanging in the National Gallery. It’s enough to make one weep in dream and joy. I would still buy prints of BOTH of these and proudly hang them up. Gimme tshirts, even.

So take the critique with that in mind. We still celebrate this moment, even as we debatethe art. Props to Amy and Kehinde.

I’m looking forward to going to the National Gallery to see both up close.

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33 Comments

  1. Margaret M.
    February 12, 2018 at 1:20 pm — Reply

    I don’t love hers, but there’s definitely enough there that I can postulate from it.

    I could see the palette being intended to reflect the fact that she was not truly able to fully be herself, because she had to present a toned-down, less ambitious facade so as to not further alienate people already intimidated by a powerful, ambitious, and brilliant black woman. Additionally, she was so recognized for her style, often being reduced to a fashion icon at the expense of her other accomplishments and abilities; I think the prominence of her dress in the portrait could be a nod to that.

    • Shawn
      February 12, 2018 at 1:34 pm — Reply

      Those are good observations. Helps me appreciate the portrait now.

      • FiFi Smith
        February 23, 2018 at 10:58 am — Reply

        Yes, that explanation helps me as well. Although, I still wish for all the items Awesomely Luvvie listed were actually in the portrait. I like, but I don’t care for it at all. It’s not the personification of FLOTUS that I was hoping for. Can they do it again? Please.

    • Ni
      February 12, 2018 at 2:17 pm — Reply

      Margaret, I think you hit it square on the head! 🙌🏾

    • MajorBedhead
      February 12, 2018 at 2:34 pm — Reply

      See, this is why I need people who Know Things about art to comment. Because I never would have gotten that from that picture. I just thought it looked flat and not really like her. But the way you put it has me re-evaluating it completely. Thank you.

      • Margaret M.
        February 12, 2018 at 2:40 pm — Reply

        Oh, I totally don’t Know Things about art. But I do like thinking critically and had some amazing teachers who taught me how to do it with literature! Skills transfer! Critical thinking! We can all do it!

    • February 12, 2018 at 3:05 pm — Reply

      Ooooo Margaret, that’s a brilliant analysis!

  2. CPJC
    February 12, 2018 at 2:56 pm — Reply

    https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/12/kehinde-wiley-portrait-barack-obama-amy-sherald-michelle

    This is another response to the portraits – an opposite take that offers an interesting critique of the Wiley painting. But I do agree with you that the palette of the Sherald painting does not do justice.

    • February 13, 2018 at 10:36 am — Reply

      I found the review in the link above interesting. Its interesting how we all see things differently. I loved Obamas pix as I know Kehinde Wileys work and appreciate his portryal of black men in a different context…I like luvvie was trying to like Michelles one but just cant for all the reasons she mentioned…but I appreciate the backstory….oh well…

  3. Tari
    February 12, 2018 at 2:57 pm — Reply

    Hmmnn… I don’t love them as official portraits, but I would love to hear where the artists were coming from.

  4. February 12, 2018 at 3:03 pm — Reply

    Thanks for saying what I was thinking. I wanted to LOVE Michelle’s portrait and I was disappointed to say the least.
    However, Barack’s portrait was outstanding and was completely unexpected. I wonder if Kehinde had Barack in the brushes because before he ran for President or even before his 2014 DNC keynote speech, he literally came outta NOWHERE and beat Hillary in 2008. He was an underdog in politics and wasn’t taken seriously at first because he was a community organizer. I love the flower elements as it represents where he came from. Dope af piece.

  5. Valerie
    February 12, 2018 at 3:26 pm — Reply

    You Nailed it Michelle looks flat… I love the commmentary about her dress being quilted. Which speaks of her heritage

  6. Mizzyna
    February 12, 2018 at 3:50 pm — Reply

    I agree totally. My FLOTUS was/is Fire you hit it all in your article. What I thought when saw the portrait my 1st thought was “no one diminish My FLOTUS. I know silly me But I will purchase the prints.

  7. AJB
    February 12, 2018 at 3:56 pm — Reply

    Here’s why I LOVE Mrs. Obama’s portrait – it is a statement on how the world saw her for 8 years – like all Black Women Mrs. Obama was never seen in all of her technicolor glory! This portrait does make you wonder why she is not Chocolate brown and you KNOW you are missing out! BRILLIANT!

  8. February 12, 2018 at 3:58 pm — Reply

    I am commenting as a fellow painter and fan of contemporary portraiture. That said, I have been eagerly awaiting these paintings since I first heard about the artists who were chosen to paint them. I am a HUGE, HUGE fan of Amy Sherald’s work, her minimalist technique and treatment of subject matter. I also appreciate Kehinde Wiley as an artist of incredible detail, precision and technique. He’s not my favorite painter, but I do think he’s a great choice for this honor.

    First, Kehinde’s portrait: To me, Wiley has managed to really capture Barack Obama in his directness and serious forward gaze at the viewer. The seriousness is balanced with his connection to the lush beauty of the background foliage. I love how he is both in and out of nature. Knowing the symbolism of the plants representing Hawaii, Kenya and Chicago makes this detail even richer for me. I think this is a unique and stunning portrait.

    Sherold’s Michelle Obama: Ok, I love the composition and the use of symbolism in the quilt pattern on the dress. I have to agree that I really wanted the colors to be bolder in the background. I want the portrait of Michelle to “pop” and express the vibrancy in the way that she seems to in real life! I know that the artist may not have been aiming for a likeness, but rather an interpretation. Portraits are really hard… I really want to love this…but, ummmm….well maybe I need to see it in person.

  9. February 12, 2018 at 4:44 pm — Reply

    Yes! Her arms! That was my first observation. What’s the point of having her in a sleeveless dress if we’re not going to accurately portray her arms!

    I love Barack’s though.

  10. Sherri
    February 12, 2018 at 5:32 pm — Reply

    I too wanted to love this as much as I love Michelle. I’m saddened to think that future generations will see her like this.

    Instead of expressing her warmth, the artist chose a very cool palette. Her skin looks ashen and her facial expression looks dull, but in reality she is incredibly vivacious and sharp. She glows from within, but that is missing from her portrait.

    I like the idea of the quilt in her dress, it speaks of comfort and warmth and the exquisite individual beauty that can arise from humble beginnings. I also see a partial heart image in it, and I love that it’s not sentimental or too sweet. But I wish the dress didn’t demand so much attention.

  11. February 12, 2018 at 6:24 pm — Reply

    […] Awesomely Luvvie […]

  12. Catherine
    February 12, 2018 at 6:34 pm — Reply

    Is is just me or are Barack’s hands huge!

    • Renee
      February 15, 2018 at 9:57 am — Reply

      I thought the same thing. You sort of have to wonder if he was making a point.

  13. Jolene
    February 12, 2018 at 6:37 pm — Reply

    My initial reaction was similar to what many of you have said re the painting lacking Michelle’s drive and energy. But, as I’ve looked at it and read other reactions, I’m seeing something else.

    As First Lady, Michelle was all about doing things. Let’s eat healthy food! Let’s exercise more! Let’s make sure girls all over the world have a chance to be educated! Let’s get more black and brown kids going to college!

    But now, she is sitting back a bit. She is no longer telling us what to do, but she has a few things to tell us about America. In this portrait, she looks like a woman who wants to speak a more fundamental truth than she did as the nation’s program director.

    • Txbirdy
      February 12, 2018 at 9:56 pm — Reply

      “the nation’s program director.”

      *giggling* That is a good description.

  14. Jaime Godoy
    February 12, 2018 at 11:03 pm — Reply

    Barack looks like he’s sitting on the toilet.

  15. Szarka
    February 13, 2018 at 10:16 am — Reply

    I didn’t know anything about Wiley’s work, and really appreciated this PBS documentary behind the scenes of one of his recent shows.
    (The models are so skeptical of the project when he is recruiting on the street, and then when they see themselves so beautiful and regal in the finished pieces, well, I cried for them.)
    https://www.pbs.org/video/kehinde-wiley-economy-grace-full-episode

    • Deborah
      February 13, 2018 at 12:43 pm — Reply

      THANK YOU for this! It was quite informative & illuminating.

  16. Liv Howard
    February 13, 2018 at 11:07 am — Reply

    I think I was disappointed in the portrait of Michelle Obama because of expectations. We expect everything about her to reflect her vibrancy, brilliance and energy. I wanted her portrait to be full of Black Girl Magic; you know a kind of SheJesus dripping with sanctified blood to turn our bitter waters sweet. One glance at her portrait would have awakened us from the last year of the Orange Foolius nightmare.
    It’s not all of that, but I get it.

  17. Karen Kelley
    February 13, 2018 at 12:49 pm — Reply

    I think it is significant that both President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama selected the artists who painted these portraits and that the results are so striking – – and different from the public personas that they incarnated while inhabiting the White House. Barack Obama, whose main critique (by fair-minded folk, not the racist haters) was that he was too cool, too detached and unemotional, chose the artist that depicted him fully a part of this lush, dense, rich and colorful background. His inner life, perhaps only now fully appreciable? And Michelle Obama, whose White House persona was open, giving, caring, and radiant chose an artist who has restored a measure of her reserve and that protective distance that many of us can inhabit as a protective shield against the vitriol, and scorching, non-stop criticism. Looking at her portrait, I feel that Michelle’s messages – – to us and to future generations of Americans – – might be, “There; those arms that far too many of you spent way too much time obsessing over. Here; the clothes that all too many insisted should be the sum total of all that I should have embodied for those 8 years: here you go. Have these representations as you will. I reclaim my privacy, my peace, my reserve.”

  18. notconvincedgranny
    February 13, 2018 at 2:42 pm — Reply

    Barry O’s – okay. I almost expected Homer Simpson to appear in the bushes (maybe Sean Spicer’s creeping ass).

    Ms. ‘Chelle’s – nope. I’m not even trying to find meaning. You should not have to have a degree in Art Appreciation to have art evoke feeling, and that includes even hate. It’s not the skin tone; Michelle is live and vibrant; this made her drab and boring.

  19. Stacy
    February 14, 2018 at 9:09 am — Reply

    I 100% percent agree with you. Also, I’d buy a knockoff of both and hang them in my apartment because #ForeverMyPrez

  20. Kara
    February 14, 2018 at 11:22 am — Reply

    I think of FLOTUS portrait as a speaks to me of how when a woman covers a man, he becomes everything he needs to be. She covered him with the bounty of HerSelf and he became who he needed to be.
    That’s my take; even as I respect all other.

  21. Tami
    February 15, 2018 at 2:42 pm — Reply

    I love President Obama’s picture. It’s vibrant & full of life. Michelle’s complexion looks gray to me. I just think it’s okay.

  22. conlakappa
    February 16, 2018 at 12:51 am — Reply

    They both look better in person. His is even more vibrant and hers has greater dimension and pop. Please note that neither is at the “National Gallery.” That is a different museum altogether. They are at twin museums, National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. I went on Valentine’s Day and there were mag-rope lines for both. These museums aren’t on The Mall so probably the least-visited in the Smithsonian family. That has changed.

  23. […] greeted the unveiling of the Obama portraits (his by Kehinde Wiley, hers by Amy Sherald) with various levels of enthusiasm from LOVE to lukewarm (the New Yorkeroffers an interesting take on Michelle’s portrait, […]

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