15 Feb KEHINDE WILEY – OBAMA PORTRAIT REVIEW
When news broke that Kehinde Wiley was being commissioned by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Centre to produce a portrait of Barrack Obama – becoming the first black artist to do a presidential portrait – one couldn’t help but be excited, here was one of the world’s leading black artists capturing the United States of America’s first and only black president. Unveiled yesterday at the Smithsonian Centre, Wiley’s portrait is a strong but conventional piece compared to his previous work, which captures the warmth of Obama, but not much more.
Wiley is largely known for his colourful and glamorous portraits of every day black people set upon the backdrop of old European paintings of Aristocrats. In this piece Wiley captures Obama against a floral background, leaning forward and looking directly at the viewer in a large scale. The floral background references his life journey: African blue lilies represent his Kenyan heritage, Jasmine his time growing up in Hawaii and chrysanthemums represent his time in Chicago. The symbolism in flowers is subtle and cleverly references the different places in Obama’ life that have made him the man he is.
Wiley’s portrait comes across conventional compared to his other works and lacks the vibrancy present in them. Obama’s sitting position relays a sense of calm although it feels somewhat rigid. Wiley’s realist portrayal of Obama accentuates his physical features wonderfully. The floral backdrop is the best part of the piece. It adds life and colour to the portrait and sets it apart from previous presidential paintings. It gives the piece warmth and extends that same warmth to Obama, displaying him as a president you easily become friends with.
The choice of background is always interesting as it says a lot about how the artist wants us to view the subject. In choosing a floral setting Wiley undercuts the formality of Obama’s sitting position, unlike pieces where the presidents were stationed in a much more formal background. Wiley takes Obama out of his presidential position and asks us to look at the man himself. This together with his body position and attire adds an air of informality to the piece. In this remark Wiley’s portrait of Obama bears similarities to Robert A. Anderson’s portrait of George W. Bush, where Bush is situated in an informal setting, leaning forward and in somewhat casual attire. Both artists seem to suggest what is important are the men themselves rather than the position they held.
Wiley’s falls short however, of digging deep into the inner workings of Obama, it fails to say anything new about Obama. The sitting position is popular one amongst the presidential portraits, with the likes Thomas Jefferson, Harry S. Truman and Herbert Hoover captured this way; it relays a sense of control and power and as such it’s easy to why Wiley chose to use it. However, painting Obama this way Wiley fails to capture any of the charisma and charm that made the world fall in love with him.
Alongside Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald creates a portrait of Michelle Obama. Sherald uses light brushwork to capture Michelle in a subdued tone against a colourful background. The contrast in colours draws the viewer to Michelle. There is less going on in the background compared to the Wiley piece where the garden almost threatens to consume Obama, this sharpens the viewers’ attention on Michelle.
There is an emotional rawness to the piece as Michelle’s sitting position and glance relay a sense of control and vulnerability. This combined with the subdued tone of Michelle gives the piece a bit more edge to it than Wiley’s. The subdued tone is reminiscent of Sherald’s previous work, and it’s interesting to see that she retains her artistic approach whereas Wiley seems to tone his down. Sherald’s piece is smaller than Wiley’s, thus where Wiley’s is larger than life capturing Obama’s large presence, Sherald’s is life size and hones in on the intimacy of Michelle which made the world easily connect to her.
Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Obama is a strong addition to the presidential portraits, but viewing it one would wish Wiley was more daring. Wiley and Sherald’s pieces display the warmth and control that many will remember in Barrack and Michelle Obama for, and for many that is enough.