By Maya Valentine
Last week, portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled. They are truly stunning.
The portraits are currently displayed at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in D.C.
Like other presidents before him, President Obama’s presidency is memorialized in canvas. Unlike his predecessors, however, his portrait is notable for the same uniqueness that represented his tenure.
Artist Kehinde Wiley is known for his portrayals of black people. Infused with his vibrant colors, memetic style, and stark expression, are themes of majestic regalism and power. His models often wear regular clothing that is strongly juxtaposed by their prestigious backdrops. When we think of older historical paintings, we think of white men on horses, but Wiley proposes an alternative idea in his work.
By centering black bodies within an old western style of heroism and nobility, he places them into positions of power. So when Wiley was tasked with painting the former president, came as no shock that the work simultaneously stands out and is out of place.
The painting is supposed to represent President Obama’s “path on Earth,” as the flowers in the backdrop are references to Chicago, Hawaii, and Kenya, respectively. There is something humbling about Mr. Obama’s countenance and pose. Like the other art from Wiley’s, he comes off as a regular person. At the same time, the entire portrait is captivating because within the style is a sense of power. In comparison, past presidential portraits stimulate the same perceptions that Wiley was inspired by and wanted to challenge.
When we look at his portrait of President Obama, it is truly a testament to the anomaly of his presidency. He is a black man – an identity that is too often stripped of power, of validity, of recognition. He was president – one of the most powerful positions of the country – revered, loved, iconicized.
And for generations to come, we will gaze upon the countenance within a brilliant display, power and identity maintained. Surrounded by white men riding horses.