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Obama's portrait artist painted black women decapitating white women

14 February 2018, 07:03 | Myrtle Vega

Artist Kehinde Wiley and Barack Obama participate in the unveiling of Obama's portrait. REUTERS Jim Bourg

Artist Kehinde Wiley and Barack Obama participate in the unveiling of Obama's portrait. REUTERS  Jim Bourg

When Michelle Obama's official portrait by the Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald was unveiled on Monday, the painting behind the black veil received modest cheers and a round of polite - restrained, even - applause.

The new art injects color into the visual timeline of presidents and first lady's and adds to the shift in diversity at the National Portrait Gallery. Earlier this week, we were blessed with the Obamas' portraits and everyone had mixed reactions about how unconventional they looked compared to past presidents.

A few others noticed similarities between Barack's portrait and Beyoncé's iconic maternity portrait. "You exist in our minds and our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you", Sherald said. For example, Wiley included flowers like jasmine to represent Hawaii, Obama's birthplace; African blue lilies for Kenya, the birthplace of his father; and chrysanthemums for Chicago, the birthplace of his political career.

Mrs Obama said: "I'm also thinking about all the young people - particularly girls and girls of colour - who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution". The use of gray is a political statement of sorts for Sherald, in which she discards the assigned "color" of African-American subjects.

Obama is the first African-American president to have a portrait hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley is a NY native recognized for his depictions of young African American men with urban vogue appeal.

Artist Amy Sherald painted the mother of two wearing a gown by Michelle Smith, the designer behind contemporary label Milly - a brand that the always-fashionable activist has worn in the past.

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Sherald, like the former president, spoke highly of Michelle Obama, describing her as "a human being with integrity, intelligence, confidence and compassion".

That she chose Sherald as an artist is also significant.

Kehinde Wiley is well-known for recreating famous paintings, but replacing the featured white person - often a noble or general - with a young black man. Wiley often met the men on the street, brought them into his studio, and had them pick a work to be painted into, the famously left-wing Village Voice reported in March 2015. The event, which in past years has played out as a routine ceremony, felt momentous as portraits showed the first African American couple in the White House by the first African American artists to be commissioned for the task.

"She's known for a lot of things and one of them is fashion, so I knew that was important", Sherald says.

The result is a work that embraces Obama's own personal story. As with many works of art, this was meant to be provocative ("I think at its best what art is doing is setting up a set of provocations", Wiley said in a 2015 interview).

But, after closer inspection, the painting starts to reveal Mrs. Obama.



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