President Barack and Michelle Obama’s portraits were unveiled at a special ceremony Monday morning. The two portraits were commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Out gay artist, Kehinde Wiley — best known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African Americans — was selected to create the President Obama portrait. Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, a first-prize winner of the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, was selected to paint Mrs. Obama.
“We had an immediate connection with the two artists who are sitting here today,” President Obama shared. “I think it’s fair to say Kehinde and I bonded maybe not in the same away as this whole sister girl thing. We shook hands. We had a nice conversation. He and I made different sartorial decisions, but what we did find was that we had certain things in common.”
Obama explains the pair both had American mothers who raised them, and African fathers who were absent. “Our journeys involved searching for them and what that meant.”
Obama continued: “Whenever I saw his portraits, the degree to which they challenge our conventional views of power and privilege. And the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognition of the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them in a grand stage, on a grand scale. To force us to look at them and see them in a way so often they were not.”
“Kehinda lifted them up and gave them a platform and said they belonged at the center of American life. That was something that moved me deeply because in my small way that is part of what I believe politics should be about. Is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up.”
“This is an insane situation,” Wiley said at the start of his speech. “My whole life is driven by chance.”
A New York-based portrait painter originally from Los Angeles, Kehinde Wiley is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of black people in heroic poses. The Columbus Museum of Art describes his work: “Wiley has gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture.”
Former First Lady Michelle Obama chose a different artist, Amy Sherald. The Obama’s choice of these two artists is historical, as it’s the first time African American artists have been selected since the institution of painting presidential portraits began in 1994. There are always two sets of portraits created: one will hang in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery while the other will find a home in the White House.
“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,’ said Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.