WASHINGTON – Wrapped in symbolism, both political and historical, the portraits of former President Barack Obama and former Prime Minister Michelle Obama were included in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday, generating critical acclaim and strong reactions as mixed public on social networks.
From the outset, the portraits have given much to talk about in the world of the arts because the Obamas personally chose, from among a score of artists, those who would capture their images on the canvas. The process lasted almost two years.
Kehinde Wiley, based in New York, made the green portrait of former President Obama while Amy Sherald, based in Baltimore (Maryland), made that of Michelle Obama.
Both are the first African-American artists to make official portraits of a presidential couple in the history of the Gallery, which is part of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution.
They also share that their works – many of which give prominence to African-American figures almost absent from the art of portraiture in the West – break conventional schemes in that genre, and interweave the politics of the racial relations of contemporary life.
In an interview with this newspaper, the curator of paintings and sculptures and Latin art in the Gallery, the Puerto Rican Tainan Caragol, said that Wiley is not a “conventional” artist and, therefore, forces the public to have a “new look at this president and his history, which changed the profile of the US presidency. ”
“Wiley and Sherald are artists who are involved in the contemporary world of art, they are artists who question the tradition of portraiture and its limits, in particular its pattern of exclusion of minorities, of black people, of dark people, and they do so by focusing on those subjects who have been outside of that tradition, “explained Caragol.
“They are artists who are very committed to representing minorities, African-Americans, people from Madrid, coffee-and-milk people,” he said.
In a painting of just over seven feet tall, with a lush vegetation in the background and dotted with flowers that suggest part of his unique biography: African lily, from Kenya, country of his biological father; jasmine, for his native state of Hawaii, and chrysanthemum, the official flower of Chicago (Illinois), where he met his future wife and began his political career giving first steps as a community organiser.
Sitting on an elaborate wooden chair that seems to float on the canvas, his image also draws attention for the contrasts between his serious and thoughtful look, and his black suit, with a white shirt casual style and devoid of tie.
The canvas simultaneously narrates the story of the man who assumed the presidency in 2009 on the shoulders of the civil rights movement, and the man whose abandonment of his father launched him into a perennial search for his place in the world.
In contrast, in the portrait of Michelle, Sherlad opted for a celestial background and Gray tones for her skin, to show that the concept of “race” is a racial construction. Her white dress, designed by Michelle Smith, is wide and geometric and abstract, and takes its inspiration from African fabrics.
Michelle is a great-great-granddaughter of slaves, a fact she always said in her eight years in the White House to demonstrate the difficult progress of her ethnic group. 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.
The former lady explained that she chose Sherald for the impact that her work will have on future generations of minority girls.
“You will see hanging on the walls of this great American institution an image of someone who looks like them … and I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls,” said Michelle Obama, daughter on Monday. from a middle class family in South Chicago.
Perhaps as a sign of the growing polarisation that the United States is experiencing, both portraits generated praise and admiration from the critics, who highlighted the place of the Obama in the history of the US, and reactions from a perplexed public, trying to decipher the message.
Much of the criticism focused on that Michelle’s looks little or nothing like her and does not represent the image of inner strength projected by the former lady, although the artist faithfully captured her turned arms.
Some, who never accepted the first African-American president in the history of the country, criticized, for example, that the Fox News conservative network has dedicated time to cover Monday the presentation ceremony “of a chimpanzee’s portrait”.
But those comments came from a tiny minority, as many used qualifiers such as “powerful” and “wonderful,” to describe a president who left the White House more than a year ago and continues to provoke longing for times of “calm and confidence”. who defined his administration. “