As Portrayed by Kehinde Wiley
By: Lindsey M. Burgess
On February 12, 2018, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. unveiled the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Obama, a vibrant and unusual contrast to portraitures of Presidents and their first ladies in the past: Barack, painted by Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle, by Amy Sherald. American culture has shifted in the last eight years, particularly in terms of representation. The Obama legacy is defined by the visibility of minorities. The first Latina to be nominated to Supreme Court Justice, Sonya Sotomayor, was spearheaded by President Obama and the first African-American Attorney General, Eric Holder, was also appointed by him. For many Americans, the Obama era represents an eradication, or an evolution of the reimagining of who and what is part of America’s public imagination. American homogeneity ruptured in 2008 when Obama was first elected. And, Obama’s last bequest, a portraiture by Kehinde Wiley, will continue to disrupt.
Kehinde Wiley’s brilliance is rooted in his ability to not only arouse new interpretation of classical art, but to reimagine existing power structure(s) by employing themes of heroism, grandiosity, and majesty on Black and Brown bodies. Born in Los Angeles to a Nigerian father and an African-American mother, Wiley’s rich cultural background enables him to draw upon the layered experiences of Black diasporic identities. Wiley’s mother shielded him from the violent gang culture that raped South Central LA in the late eighties by enrolling him in art classes. At the Art Institute of San Francisco, Wiley honed on the technicalities of painting by mastering canons, while at Yale he invested in the “arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity, etc.” In Wiley’s previous work, The World Stage, he scoured the ends of the earth looking for subjects: from Morocco to Brazil to Sri Lanka to Nigeria. When choosing a country, he took into account the significance of the country, and its role on a global scale. “One of the reasons I chose Brazil, Nigeria, India and China is that these are all the points of anxiety and curiosity and production that are going on in the world that are changing the way we see empire,” Wiley mentions on his website.
Kehinde Wiley's work is intentional. Wiley, who also identifies as queer, doesn’t shy away from his conceptualization of Black and Brown bodies, and his defiance to the status quo is most evident in his recent portraiture of Barack Obama. Like all of Wiley’s paintings, he started off with taking a series of photos of Obama. Adorned by green foliage, Obama sits in a wooden chair, slightly kneeled over, with the backdrop of foliage encroaching parts of his shoe and lower legs. His gaze is stern, pensive, but tempered by a relaxed mouth. He doesn’t bear his red or blue tie, only a white collared shirt. The flora pays homage to Obama’s roots – jasmine for Hawaii, chrysanthemums for Chicago, and blue lilies for Kenya. Perhaps, because Obama’s heritage was questioned so often, Wiley saw these symbols as indispensable. Whatever his reason for employing, Wiley creates a soft juxtaposition by engaging Obama’s public and private persona; Barry, Barack, and President Obama exist simultaneously.
There is a personalization to Wiley’s portrait of Obama that is unparalleled to past portraits of Presidents. Social media’s obsession with memes of Obama made his presence even more pervasive in American life. Whereas traditional interpretations of political figures have absolved subjects of their personal histories, Wiley grounds Obama in his. Thus, the most important question can only be answered sixty years from now, when historians write about the Obama era and use Wiley’s photo as a tool for understanding.