It may not have been completely intentional, but the unveiling of the official portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama during Black History Month was certainly something to behold.
It was the first black president and the first black first lady, painted and portrayed by black artists in a way that told their stories, that portrayed beliefs, in pictures worth more than a thousand words.
The portraits were unveiled in a ceremony on Monday at the National Portrait Gallery. New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley — known for reimagining traditional Western art and putting African Americans both anonymous and famous as the focus — was selected to bring the former POTUS’ image on to canvas. Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald brought FLOTUS to life using oil on linen using a more modern touch, using her signature gray palette.
This moment, with black artists celebrating black accomplishments, was lost on no one, least of all the Obamas, who noted that they were the first in their families to sit for a portrait.
“I am humbled, I am honored, I am proud. I am so incredibly grateful to all the people who came before me in this journey. The folks who built the foundation upon which I stand,” Michelle Obama told the audience who came to celebrate the big moment. “I am also thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.”
“I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls,” she added. “And when I think about those future generations and generations past, I think again, wow. What an incredible journey we are on together in this country.”
In true Michelle Obama fashion, the first lady in her choice of artist, and in her choice of dress, chose to share her spotlight with rising stars. The dress featured in the portrait was designed by Michelle Smith’s label Milly, and even that had extreme significance, with Sherald sharing how the geometric patterns reminded her of the quilts of Gee’s Bend, a small, remote, black community in Alabama known for its quilt masterpieces.
The former FLOTUS portrait captures her seated, with one hand tucked under her chin as she stares out at those surveying her. Her expression cool, confident, unflinching.
“The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us, because what you represent to this country is an ideal, a human being with integrity, intellect, confidence and compassion,” Sherald, the winner of the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a rising star in the art world, told the audience.
The former President, on the other hand, was his usual charming self (please come back), joking as he surveyed his colorful and vibrant portrait.
“Kehinde relative to Amy was working at a disadvantage because his subject was less becoming,” he quipped. “Not as fly.”
“I tried to negotiate less grey hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears, struck out on that as well,” the former president said as the audience chuckled.
Barack Obama was painted sitting on a wooden chair among dense foliage with pops of colorful flowers. That was a purposeful touch by artist Wiley, who noted that some of the flowers carry special meaning to the president and his journey through life. The chrysanthemums give a nod to Chicago, the jasmine evokes Hawaii, where the President grew up, and of course the African blue lilies give nod to his Kenyan heritage.
“The ability to be the first African American to paint the first African American President of the United States; it doesn’t get any better than that,” Wiley said. “I was humbled by this invitation.”
“Mr President I thank you for giving me a chance, and I thank you for giving this nation a chance to experience your splendor on a global scale,” the artist added.
The newest additions to the gallery will be on view to the public beginning Feb. 13.