“Pretty sharp,” was what Barack Obama described his portrait as when it was unveiled to the public at the Smithsonian U.S. National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. on Monday.
On a seven-foot canvas behind him, seated in a garden of chrysanthemums, jasmine, and African blue lilies, he paid homage to each stage of his life leading to his presidency. The flowers were a nod to his birthplace Hawaii, hometown of Chicago and his father.
The artist, Kehinde Wiley, is widely known for his contributions to African American art. When he took to the stage, he marveled at the journey that both he and Barack had made and discussed the connection that he felt to his subject. Both came from single-parent homes with absent African fathers. Present day, both stood before an audience of celebrity icons and political peers to unveil seven-foot painting by an African American artist of the first African American president.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Wiley said, emphasizing that he was both humbled and inspired by the experience.
By Barack’s side, both in life and in art stood, his wife and former First Lady Michelle Obama, beaming as she gazed up at the profound representation of herself by artist, Amy Sherald. The artist, as noted by the Smithsonian, is known for depicting “the inner strength of her subjects through a combination of calm expressions and confrontational poses.”
The portrait was meant to be a representation of Michelle’s unapologetically authentic self. Throughout her time as First Lady, her name became synonymous with poise, grace and intellect. A classic and elegant black and white Michelle wore a sprawling gown made up of the bold, confident quilts sewn by the hardworking hands of a tight-knit community in Alabama.
Both paintings are a welcome disruption from the tension of the current political climate in which women and Black and African Americans have been coming forward and expressing their frustrations with various policies and media figures. The symbolism displayed is a reminder of how far we have come throughout history and the great strides that we will make as a country moving forward.