Obamas’ official portraits unveiled
WASHINGTON • When Barack Obama speaks, people listen. At least they did when he was in the White House. But that kind of authority didn’t hold much sway when it came time for his presidential portrait.
At a ceremony Monday to unveil portraits of him and former first lady Michelle Obama, the former U.S. president said artist Kehinde Wiley cheerfully ignored almost all of his suggestions.
“He listened very thoughtfully to what I had to say before doing exactly what he always intended to do,” he said. “I tried to negotiate less grey hair but Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow it. I tried to negotiate smaller ears and struck out on that as well.”
Wiley has set Obama against a bower of what looks like ground cover. From the greenery sprout flowers that have symbolic meaning for the subject. African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Obama himself was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, reference the city where his political career began, and where he met his wife.
Obama is sitting in a chair, leaning forward and looking serious.
Michelle Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, shows her in a black and white dress looking thoughtful with her hand on her chin.
Both artists were personally chosen by the Obamas.
The portraits will now hang in the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums. The gallery has a complete collection of presidential portraits. A different set of portraits of the former first couple will eventually hang in the White House.
“I am humbled, I am honoured, I am proud,” Michelle Obama said. “Young people, particularly girls and girls of colour, in future years they will come to this place and see someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this incredible institution.”
Barack Obama spoke of his choice of Wiley, saying the two men shared multiple parallels in their upbringing; both had African fathers who were largely absent from their lives and American mothers who raised them.
The former president drew multiple laughs for his remarks, starting out by praising Sherald for capturing, “the grace and beauty and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.”
Obama said he found sitting for the portrait to be a frustrating experience.
“I don’t like posing. I get impatient and start looking at my watch,” he said, “but working with Kehinde was a great joy.”
Barack Obama’s portrait will be installed, long-term, among those of his presidential peers, in a dedicated space on the second floor. Michelle Obama’s will hang in a corridor reserved for temporary displays of new acquisitions — on the first floor. It will stay there until November, after which there’s no place for it to land.
The official portraits of former U.S. president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., on Monday. “I tried to negotiate smaller ears and struck out,” the former president joked at the unveiling ceremony.