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Obamas Choose Artists to Paint Official Portraits


U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 46th annual Legislative Conference Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington, Sept. 17, 2016.

The United States’ National Portrait Gallery has announced that two up-and-coming African-American artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, have been selected to paint the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

The Smithsonian Institution, parent organization of the National Portrait Gallery, said Friday that President Obama had specifically requested to be painted by Wiley, 40, whose portraits of young black men have made a sharp impact on the art world.

FILE - Kehinde Wiley attends the The Gordon Parks Foundation Annual Awards Dinner and Auction, June 6, 2017, in New York.
FILE - Kehinde Wiley attends the The Gordon Parks Foundation Annual Awards Dinner and Auction, June 6, 2017, in New York.

Wiley places his young models in poses reminiscent of famous court painters of previous centuries, such as Diego Velazquez, Peter Paul Rubens, and Hans Holbein. He paints many of his subjects larger than life, using gauzy realism and vivid colors to arrest the viewer’s attention.

Wiley, born in Los Angeles, California, has been considered a successful artist for more than a decade.

His images replace the white subjects of his forbears with handsome young African-American men and women in front of decorative backdrops that resemble wallpaper. Some of the backdrops contain designs that overlap the figure in the portrait, raising questions about whether the subject has power over his environment or is trapped by it.

Paintings of LL Cool J, left, and Ice-T, both by Kehinde Wiley, are part of the exhibit "RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture," at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Feb. 5, 2008.
Paintings of LL Cool J, left, and Ice-T, both by Kehinde Wiley, are part of the exhibit "RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture," at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Feb. 5, 2008.

​Some of Wiley’s subjects are famous, such as rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J, whose portrait shows him seated, larger than life, coolly aloof as he gazes down on his audience in front of a vibrant red and green damask pattern.

In recent years Wiley has conducted what he calls his World Stage project, painting subjects from a variety of far-flung places, such as China, Jamaica, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Brazil. His paintings place people of color in settings where they radiate power, beauty and grace equal to the light-skinned subjects who for centuries were the focus of similar portraits.

First lady’​s portrait

Michelle Obama chose Sherald, winner of the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portraiture competition in 2016, to paint her portrait as first lady.

Sherald is a 44-year-old African-American woman from Baltimore, Maryland, scene of protests in 2015 over the death while in police custody of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man.

With racial tensions still running high in her hometown, Sherald’s portraits, like Wiley’s, focus on her African-American subjects in a way that emphasizes grace, dignity and each person’s unique features.

Sherald’s work is full of poised energy. Some of her images look almost flat, like cutouts, but the faces and bodies of her subjects look as though they were asked to stop and pose in the middle of a movement, a thought or a breath.

FILE - Amy Sherald, winner of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2016 first prize, stands in front of her work, March 11, 2016, at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.
FILE - Amy Sherald, winner of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2016 first prize, stands in front of her work, March 11, 2016, at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

The painting for which Sherald won the National Portrait Gallery is called “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)” and features a young black woman dressed in a navy blue dress, white gloves and a striking red hat, holding an oversized white teacup and saucer. The subject looks graceful and relaxed while her eyes bore into the viewer in an unspoken challenge.

The work of both artists examines and challenges ideas about black identity, a prominent concept in the legacy of the nation’s first African-American presidential couple.

National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery and the White House work together at the conclusion of each presidency to commission two official sets of portraits, with one set for display at the White House and one at the National Portrait Gallery. Both collections are in Washington, D.C.

In a statement Friday, Director Kim Sajet said the National Portrait Gallery “is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady.”

Sajet noted that both artists have been very successful, but more importantly, she said, “they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The portraits are expected to be unveiled in early 2018.

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