Paintings may actually serve a purpose. Inspiration: looking at a beautiful painting does ignite those creative and disciplined urges. A creative looking for a mentor may find one in a particular painting or in a painterly style. People who like similar painters or a period of art history may form a community such as artists who favor the classical style.
Obama’s presidential portrait by Kehinde Wiley could serve some of these purposes for looking at art. First of all, he puts the former President outdoors away from the Oval Office and the White House. In an almost icon-fashion way, the painted Obama engages the viewer directly. The botanical, decorative background emerges behind Obama, at his sides, by his feet in front, and above climbing an invisible wall. The background of leaves and flowers emerges from behind to the foreground adding drama to the painting.
Like Kehinde Wiley’s other pieces, this one challenges the conventional views of power and status. This portrait painting is inspiring, shows mastery of painting technique and expressiveness, and for those who follow the recent development of Presidential portraiture, this one belongs to the canon. For the past fifty years of US electoral history, presidential portraits were collected to be kept in a collection. Several years into the making of this collection, the portraits of First Ladies were also included in order to be more equitable.
If there is a traditional objective to meet in these presidential portraits, it is to show the dignity and power of the office of the United States president. Reviewing past presidential portraits within the Smithsonian, Wiley was ready to have Obama carry a sword, riding his horse to the mountain top. Fortunately for everyone, Obama nixed this idea and asked Kehinde to bring the President’s portrait “down a knotch” in keeping with his vision of the government for the people and by the people. As portrait painters frequently do, they maintain a friendly and open rapport with their sitters. Indeed, Wiley and past President Obama were able to share their opinions about the portrait and had a good time together as painter and model.
At the finish of the painting, small details offer even more meaning to the piece. Obama is portrayed sitting in a chair recognizable to the style of antique chairs during the time in Black history when Sojourner Truth lived and became well-known. Being that Kehinde Wiley’s presidential painting was the first portrait of the first African-American president to be painted by an African American makes theses clues to black history within the painting more relevant and powerful. The botanicals represent in part, the contribution to this nation by our immigrants. They brought over to the New world plants unknown to American soil. These imported plants added so much to what was a very boring epicurean menu of the first settlers. Some of the plants in this painting include chrysanthemums that are the official flower of Chicago, jasmine the flower of Hawaii, and African blue lilies from Kenya to remember Obama’s father.
Because “racism cast a long shadow over art” the selection of Kehinde Wiley for the presidential portrait is even more significant. A landmark exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York city in 1971, featured black American artists who painted abstractly. It was a landmark show because previously most black artists were confined to a traditional norm, which burdened an artist to always being a a true representative of the whole black culture. Black representation in art was different than in literature. Blacks were painted as slaves and in servitude to white culture. There were no black heroes painted in the Western tradition of art. However, there are a few exceptions: Fuseli’s “The Negro Revenged”, Joshua Reynold’s “Study of a Black Man”, and Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa”. Goya was another exception. He painted the reality of black suppression by a white society. Therefore, to have a black artist painting a black American as president of the United States is quite exceptional in the history of western art.
It is not only Kehinde Wiley who is affecting the rest of American culture. Contemporary, young, black women artists like Lynette Yiadom-Baakye, Kara Walker, and Michelle Obama’s portraitist Amy Sherod are also putting pressure on Americans to recognize their work and how African Americans are equal members of the mainstream culture.