Beyond Artistic Racism: What's Up with the Obama Portraits

I recently commented on the powerful portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama that grace the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. They were painted, respectively, by Los Angeles-based artist Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) and Baltimore's (by way of Georgia) Amy Sherald (b. 1973). Both were controversial. Some have found the president's portrait too informal and wonder why he sits amidst a sea of foliage. The hard right also claims that Kehinde Wiley advocates race war. Sherald gets off easier; critics merely say her image doesn't look like Michelle Obama and that Sherald has little talent for capturing likenesses.

As is generally the case in art, such statements reflect personal preference. and bias. Self-appointed guardians of taste have denounced virtually every 'new' style of art—including that of the Impressionists—as the work of talentless and crass poseurs seeking to destroy all that is established and sublime.

Sherald has talent galore. Artists often have different intentions that go beyond simple representationalism. Sherald insists her major goal was to present Michelle Obama as an archetype of the modern woman: intelligent, confident, and compassionate. She also snuck in some hidden meaning. The patterns in the First Lady's dress both invoke the bold geometric shapes inherent in African design and the African American piecework found in the quilts of Gee's Bend. There's also a lot of blue in the composition, which evokes struggle and activism in East Africa. Her nail polish is the color of a lily, sacred in Egypt and parts of East Africa.

As for Wiley, those who think paintbrushes are swords, accuse Wiley of reverse racism and advocating violence. It might help if the Fox News "experts" took an Art 101 course. Wiley depictions such as a contemporary black man wielding a scimitar, or a black woman holding the severed head of a white woman are political, but not in asserted ways. First, they are takeoffs on classic art, a favorite theme of Wiley's. His blue jean clad warrior is his remake of The Charging Chasseur (1812), an iconic work by Th├ędore G─Śricault that hangs in the Louvre. Does he want you to imagine strong black men as dashing Hussars? Of course he does. Does he want black women to relieve white women of their heads? Ridiculous! These are spins on centuries of depictions of the Biblical legend of Judith and Holofernes. Wiley wouldn't mind at all, though, if you made  associations between slave mistresses and their mistreatment of female servants—especially those their white husbands coerced into sexual congress. 

Let's take a deeper look at the Barack Obama portrait. The president—who negotiated with Wiley and insisted upon a more relaxed bearing—isn't sitting in a garden. It's actually a wallpaper backdrop. This is also a very old art convention; itinerant Chinese and Tibetan artists to this day travel with backdrops. Why not? Would you rather a blank wall? Have you ever noticed that most portraits have backgrounds, even if they are splotches of contrasting color? The textured wallpaper device, though, is often found in African and African-American art. For the most part, it denotes that the person sitting in front of it is a person of power and/or high status. You can find many examples of chiefs, "big men," and important people sitting amidst elaborate designs. Wiley simply does this more often. He has even painted himself this way.

Wiley 'selfie'
Power and visible status symbols are integral to art more because of sociology than artistic invention—and in the West, not just Africa. You used to be able to know at a glance if a person was of noble birth; only European aristocrats were allowed to wear purple. If you've ever been to Amsterdam, you might wonder what's up with all those wall-to-wall images of men wearing stiff collars. They were, of course, Dutch burghers and they were posed showing off their status symbols: medals and sashes showing they held office, a quill denoting they were literate, serious faces to suggest gravitas, even finger gestures that the knowing could decode. The Jean de Bray image below is typical.

The Founding Fathers were men of the people, right? Hardly! Lots of them distrusted commoners intensely, which is why we have archaic stuff like the Electoral College and indirect representative democracy. Some of them literally wore their status upon their heads in the form of powdered wigs, as we see in this portrait of presidents 2 through 4: Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Puritan ministers also wore powdered wigs; British barristers still do. The idea of wearing someone else's hair has long been a status symbol, one that goes back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians. And, for the record, Britain's Queen Elizabeth I was as bald as a billiard ball.

How many status symbols make their way into official portraits and photos? I've seen scores of images of Elizabeth II with a crown, but I've yet to see her wearing a ball cap turned backwards. That's what makes Wiley's self-portrait so deliciously subversive! Oh, by the way, here's a shot of some members of the Vatican's College of Cardinals. Do you think it looks this way because they all coincidentally love the color red?  Maybe status is an ego thing, but how many ways does it make its way into how people present? Croziers and castles, jewels and jubilation, furs and fancy threads, tattoos and thrones, Rolexes and royal yachts….

So black folks are getting into the act? About time! I'm thinking of buying me some fancy wallpaper too. Any budding artists out there who want to elevate my status?  

Rob Weir

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