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 Thédore Gėricault 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


Newpoli Pushes the Borders of Italian Music

Newpoli, Mediterraneo

Newpoli is based in Greater Boston, where it has won numerous accolades, but there’s a reason why this band has been nominated for traditional music awards in Italy. This is high-octane Italian music that blurs the line between folk, pop, and classical. On Mediterraneo, their new album, they tear down a few more barriers. Newpoli specializes in southern taranta music—lively 6/8 dance tunes—popular in Naples and Sicily. Naples has long been a busy port city where cultures meet and blend. You’ll hear this all over the album. Na Voce Sola, for instance, has swirling, rhythmic grooves and Romani-like vocal and melody lines. Appropriately for a themed album on migration, So’ emigrant is an album highlight, a dramatic track with North African influences. Listen well and you’ll pick out some Turkish affinity. The classical training of several ensemble members is evident in the title track and elsewhere, including its mélange of instruments. Tempos are often set by hand drums and an Italian guitar called the chittara battente, a cross between a bouzouki and a Baroque guitar. You’ll also hear violin, viola, and numerous blown instruments—from bagpipes and recorders to handheld ocarinas. And let’s not overlook the grace, power, and energy of vocalists Carmen Marsico and Angela Rossi, who are just one co-conspirator short of making them an Italian version of Vartinna. My favorite track is Pizzicadegli Ucci, a piece that will make you want to garland the donkey, decorate the cart, and dance until you drop. At nearly ten-minutes in length, it’s very likely you will give out before the band.


October Music Bag: Aysola, Clanton, Hartman and Ashton, The Sea The Sea, Russell and More

Anita Aysola, Beyond Our Dreams

Here's an artist for your watch list. Anita Aysola was raised in Michigan by Indian parents. I mean no disrespect when I call her music a scrumptious curry. She's based in Atlanta these days, where she's often billed as a jazz artist, but that's way too limiting. Check out "America," which is an honest song about a multicultural nation that is often more of a crazy quilt than a coherent landscape. There's nothing wrong with your device; Aysola uses a very cool go-stop-go sequence at the beginning. The song moves into a swaying, catchy melody but did you hear sitar and tabla in the deep background? Yes, you did.  The title track places Aysola behind jazz-influenced keyboards, but the song is also soulful and folky. And let's call "Bet on Us" a PoMo number, as in post-Motown. Some have compared Aysola to Nora Jones and Tori Amos, which is pretty nice company to keep, but even that doesn't quite capture her music unless you also toss some Nusrat Ali Khan. When I say curry, I mean it; her music has elements of Hindustani, jazz, blues, soul, and folk. Aysola definitely has the chops to bring all this to the table. ★★★★★

Sarah Clanton, Here We Are

Add Sarah Clanton to the watch-for list. She has drawn comparisons to Regina Spektor, with whom she shares vocal similarities, though I don't think Ms Spektor wields a cello, Clanton's musical weapon of choice. Clanton is a recovering Southern Baptist who wasn't allowed to partake of pop culture as a child. Let's just say that college expanded her world. Here We Are is a pop/classical fusion album with some jazz elements and a few other things thrown in for good measure. "Silver Lining," for instance, has cello- and percussion-driven grooves, but a bridge that has echoes of tango and surf pop. Clanton's voice, still young in the high ranges, powers its way to levels suggestive of where she'll land in a few years. "We Belong" is a hopeful song. She asks, Aren't we all looking for a place to belong, and wends her way to an I'm okay, you're okay conclusion. My favorite track is "Slow It Down." The opening cello notes are simple, but intriguing. Then come plinky keys and a song about holding onto precious moments. The effect is like falling in love during a gentle rain. Most of Clanton's songs are pared down to the ready-ready three-minute mark. I suspect she's about to make marks of her own. ★★★★

Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton, Been on Your Side

Courtney Hartman hails from Colorado, is a roots music veteran, and a member of the string band Della Mae. She has numerous other projects well, including one with her Brooklyn neighbor, Calgary native and banjo player Taylor Ashton. Been on Your Side is Appalachian-style music broken down to basics: guitar, banjo, and voices. The result is a toasted cheese sandwich of an album, and I mean that as a compliment. The title track is a litany of all the ways one friend has the other's back. Call it the nice twin to "Dead to Me," an old-style country swing in which the voices are one part duet and another part duel. There's also some mighty fine flat-picking from Ms. Hartman, who has an earned reputation for excellence in that particular skill. "Wayside" has the feel of two folks jamming on an Appalachian ballad on the front porch of some Blue Ridge cabin; "Which Will" is equally homespun, with Hartman's voice oozing emotion. Also stellar is "Meadowlark," whose melodic simplicity invokes innocence. Tight harmonies, quiet tones, and deliberate fragility make this album a perfect antidote to the noise and disharmony all around us. ★★★★

The Sea The Sea, From the Light (compilation album)

Until recently The Sea The Sea was billed as power pop duo. No more. The two-part harmonies of Chuck Costa and Mira Stanley is now three-part, courtesy of the addition of Cara May Gorman, plus Stephen Struss has joined the band to lend steady percussion that adds a bit of edge to the delicate vocals. Theirs is an indie pop sound and for once, the term "pop" is fairly appropriate; the arrangements are too lush and sonically thick for the "lyric-driven folk" label that used to be thrown at them. Lots of people are talking about the song "Bang Bang Bang," an appropriately named track with bang-bang-bang bass and percussion lines lead-ins to vocals and harmonies that sound simultaneously fresh and early 60s retro. "Everybody" captures the Zeitgeist. It's lyrically simple, yet profound—a litany of how our commonality still results in disconnect: Everybody's wrong/And everybody knows it… Everybody's got a stone/And everybody throws it. Now my confession: I've seen this band three times and have come away impressed; yet I don't love them. It's hard not to be enchanted with the lovely harmonies, yet the music often feels distant, as if the simple things get lost in all the ornaments. My personal favorites are the ones that are less complex. "Take That" is sweet, melodic, and acoustic, "Ricochet" is a delicate dance between angelic vocals and Costa's crystalline electric guitar; and "From the Light" is hand claps, drum sticks slapping the rims, and ambience. This Troy, New York ensemble is attracting notice,  but I'd like to see more depth beneath the pretty veneers. In short, I'd like to be blown away, not just be impressed. Having said that, this band has a high ceiling. ★★★  

Liam Russell, Outro/Intro (compilation EP)

With his warm tenor, Liam Russell is never going to be confused with Leon! This Canadian-born, Nashville-based singer/songwriter is about to drop a new release titled No Contest and has made available five acoustic tracks on Noisetrade . The acoustic mode favors him, though he's also done some straight up rock and folk-rock. Russell—who first recorded under the name Liam Russell-Titcomb—has been around since 2005, but his musical output has gaps, as he's also a working actor who did a stint on TV's Wild Roses. Check out some of his back catalogue material. The guitar parts in "Angeline" are reminiscent in mood of Donovan, though the song is quite different. "Cicada" has a cool cadence that frames his warm vocals and gives it a deliberate feel appropriate for a song about waiting for a summertime relationship to blossom anew. "West" is an ensemble piece with a more plaintive feel.  ★★★

Minco Eggersman, Theodoor Borger and Mathias Eick, UNIFONY

You'd think an indie songwriter and film composer (Eggersman), a celebrated music engineer (Borger), an acclaimed Norwegian trumpeter, plus two guys who've mixed sound for rock royalty from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin to Queen and David Bowie, would produce a jazz album worthy of the stated goal of creating "sweeping cinematic tracks." You'd be wrong. This overhyped project is more like the maligned California jazz that you hear in waiting rooms because it's so innocuous. Eick is clearly a talented horn player, but his light never shines through because the material lacks spark. Nothing misfires on this record, nor could it; no chances were taken. UNIFONY is pleasant enough, but you won't remember much of anything once it finishes. Maybe this "collaborative" project had too many cooks in the kitchen, but I don't know a nice way of saying this: the music bored me.  

Jim Roberts, The Tao of Time

Jim Roberts is a percussionist and peace activist, has far-ranging musical tastes, and isn't afraid to jump into experimental waters. It's  impossible to classify Tao of Time, which is equal parts tuneful, museful, and boomful. You'll hear a reggae-influenced cover of Iggy Pop's "The Passenger," a tolling bells Zen-like take of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues," a jazz-meets-New Wave and R & B mash on "Soul Power," a chant-like touch on the title track, and spoken word meditations of peace, love, and misunderstanding. And, of course, there are also drum solos. It doesn't always work. ys. Percussionists often forget that what's exciting on stage is just repetitive out of context, and Roberts falls prey to this. He's an amazing drummer, but how many solos do you want if you're not watching the man with the sticks? He will make some listeners uncomfortable with his views on religion; he's spiritual, but thinks all religious systems are false. And, depending on your point of view, his raps on peace, nature, and meaning will be either inspiring or New Age naïve. I give him great credit for taking the kind of chances for which I've derided others for avoiding. The Tao of Time is an interesting concept album, the likes of which are seldom made any more. My only squawk is that it's ultimately so eclectic that it lacks a discernible identity.  At this writing there were no available videos. Go to this site to hear tracks.  ★★★

Alright Alright, Nearby

Alright Alright is the Denver-based husband/wife duo of Seth and China Kent, plus guests. Theirs is an alt-folk/Americana sound in which vocals are immersed in echoing piano and/or atmospheric guitar. My favorite song is "Little Girls, Little Birds," which is really about how "little girls get older," and things that shape the woman waiting to emerge. It's also a dose of wistful sorrow for what gets lost along the way. The Kents are sometimes classified as Christian music and make no attempt to hide their faith. Sometimes, as in "Luckiest Girl in America," they stray into material that is sweetly nostalgic and, perhaps, naïve. I view it as a love letter to the America that used to be and a plea for return, but that's my spin. Several songs have a harder edge, like "By the Bed," which is about a life snuffed out by a single moment of rage. There's also a cover of the Nanci Griffith/James Hooker song "Gulf Coast Highway," in which the innocent sound stands in contrast to the lyrics. I find Alright Alright a promising project, but one that could use a signature sound and more attention to production. For instance, China's lighter voice sometimes disappears in keyboard ornaments and reverb guitar. Their melodies are tight, but lack spark. The talent is there, but the arrangements don't yet make me want to insert exclamation marks into the duo's handle. ★★½ 



Paris Can Wait is Indigestion on Film

Directed by Eleanor Coppola
Sony Classic Pictures, PG, 92 minutes

If we could eat a movie, Paris Can Wait would be a gourmet meal at a four-star restaurant. Because we can’t, it induces the heartburn of a greasy spoon truck stop. It’s also a cautionary tale against nepotism.

The setup is dead simple. Anne Lockwood (Diane Lane) is married to a high-powered movie producer Michael (Alec Baldwin), who is so caught up in his work and incessant phone calls that he essentially treats his wife as an afterthought. I can’t think of a single heterosexual male on the planet who would ignore Diane Lane, so strike one in the Dumb Premise Department. Anne and Michael are in Provence, but he might as well be in his LA office as all he never looks at anything except his phone. Strike two.

Idiotic plot devices and a defiance of the laws of logic and human biology make strike three. Michael has to fly to Budapest to put out a production fire, but Anne comes down with an earache and can’t fly. Instead, Michael’s assistant Jacques (Arnaud Viard) offers to drive her to Paris, where Michael and she can rendezvous when the crisis is over. Road trip!

Now for the nepotism. Eleanor Copolla is married to Francis Ford Copolla and is the mother of director Sofia Copolla. She’s a skilled documentarian, but has never before made a feature film. She still hasn’t if we count this one. Do you think she would have gotten the chance to write the script (such as it is), co-produce, and direct Paris Can Wait were she not movie royalty?

Alas, she got this opportunity, and used it to make a travelogue documentary burdened with fictional characters. Jacques is a gourmand. Or at least that’s the setup for all manner of plot devices—and I do mean “devices.” Everything is simply an excuse for detours on the road to Paris that highlight regional sights and take us to gastronomic heaven. It all has the heft of Facebook postings of food. If only we could click “like” and move on.

It’s obvious to everyone except Anne that Jacques is trying to seduce her. This plot device requires that Lane act oblivious for most of the film. Aren’t we supposed to be light years beyond hot chick as bimbo roles? Anne doesn’t even pick up on cues when Jacques suggestively dips his finger into a cone-shaped chocolate delicacy called “Venus nipples.” That’s an actual thing, but really!

Not even this stretches credulity as much as the amount of food and wine Jacques and Anne consume in just a few days. Ancient Romans flanked by a vomitorium couldn’t put away this much food and booze. I wish I had counted how many glasses of wine each consumed in the course of a day. I’m pretty sure they’d be in a coma from that much alcohol, but I’d have to re-watch the film to be certain and there are some things I refuse to do for the sake of art.
Stereotypes of French men also abound.

If you want to see scrumptious food and stunning countryside and can’t afford a trip to Provence, borrow a National Geographic special. Or, you could watch this film—with the sound off. Paris Can Wait is an epic, as in epically bad.

Rob Weir