The recently painted portraits of the Obamas, which are now enshrined in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., are already two of the most important portraits in Western culture. Certainly, they’ve generated more interest, public opinion, and likes/shares on social media than any recent portrait (or work of art for that matter). America and the world are talking about the likenesses of the two portraits and what it means for the larger discourse on race, dignity, and our collective culture.
The paintings of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, differ in style, but each largely captures the sitter’s essence in a unique and intimate fashion. In Wiley’s portrait of the 44th President of the United States of America, Obama sits on a chair, arms crossed, with a solemn but comforting gaze towards the viewer(s). Behind him, painted in Wiley’s signature Baroque-inspired style, are foliage and flowers that are symbolic of Obama’s personal and cultural experience. They represent the places where Obama has grown and put roots down. There is jasmine for Hawaii, where he was born, African blue lilies for his Kenyan heritage (on his father’s side), and chrysanthemum, which is the official flower of the city of Chicago (Obama served as a state senator and a U.S. Senator of Illinois). If we imagine the complex root system, which has given rise to the growth of flowering vines behind Obama, we can see a further connection between nature and the nature of Obama himself. The rhizomatic nature of the plants resists closure, much like how Barack Obama’s life and career has defied all odds (an audacity of hope), resisted closure, and pushed the boundaries of our social and political culture by thinking outside the box. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explained the concept of a rhizome in philosophical terms:
As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things.’ A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.
The complex design in the background can be interpreted as the trials and tribulations that Barack Obama encountered throughout his life. It also symbolizes the rhizomatic progression of culture where we must construct experiences, reevaluate ideas, and learn collaboratively as a community. The journey and growth towards an ideal world is one that is constantly in flux, is multi-directional, is able to solve problems in the absence of rules, and suggests more than one way/path to go about finding solutions. It is essential to live in an environment where everyone is working together on an even playing field (see: Delueze & Guattari, 1980; Freire, 1968; Suoranta & Vadén, 2007), comparing various sources of information, sharing knowledge and experience (Dewey, 1938), and collaboratively interpreting the world through integrated frameworks. Contemporary art and art education, through studio habits of mind, exemplifies the rhizomatic learning theory presented above. Because art is deeply personal, entrenched in archetypal imagery, and open for interpretation, it enables us to profoundly communicate on a grand scale.
Isn’t it amazing how REALLY looking at paintings can open one’s mind to new avenues of experience and learning?! A good portrait is far more than just a physical representation of its subject, it is most importantly, a social, emotional, and cognitive expression of the sitter’s essence. Furthermore, it inspires us to look within ourselves and connect its relevance to our own lives. With this in mind, let’s take a look at what we can take away from Michelle Obama’s portrait.
Amy Sherald’s portrait of the former First Lady powerfully depicts Michelle Obama’s strength and compassion through a regal and timeless treatment. Michelle sits in a pose that is reminiscent of Classical sculpture. She appears monumental, strong, and secure, all qualities, which we know to be accurate based on the powerful presence she has within our society. Sherald painted Michelle wearing a simple but elegant sleeveless dress. There is a contemplative but compassionate gaze upon her face. Her body forms the shape of a triangle, which is a stylistic technique artists have employed since the Renaissance in order to create a sense of perception and character. The symbolism of the triangle carries significant meaning depending upon multiple (subjective) interpretations. One interpretation, which seems relatable to the first lady’s likeness, is that the triangle represents stability, a strong foundation, and an upward progression of spirit and faith. Michelle’s portrait appears at once, down to earth and timeless. She represents strength, liberty, optimism, pride, and equality, which are all pillars of a good and just world. She’s a person who has endured significant racial and physical critique and has risen above the hateful rhetoric. In doing so, she has inspired a nation to resist negative forces and open ourselves up to new possibilities.
Both of the portraits boldly stand out from the more conventional approach that previous painters have taken in painting a President and First Lady’s likeness. Then again, the Obama’s eight years in the White House were anything but conventional. They brought a modern and hip flare to the White House, which made them more accessible and transparent than their predecessors. They embodied the contemporary era and espoused progressive social and cultural policies. At times, their cool and collected nature made it seem easy, although the reality was far more complex. It was their bold leadership and daring nature, which enabled the Obama’s to thrive in a contemptuous environment. As the first black family to lead the country, the Obamas navigated a challenging road, blotted with many harsh critics and intentionally uncooperative politicians. It was blatantly obvious that America hadn’t overcome its racist mentality simply by electing a black man as president.
Above all else, the portraits depict very intimate and human elements of both Barack and Michelle Obama. They also have a very important role to play in inspiring a generation of African American youth who can visit a museum and see imagery that relates to them more personally than the countless barrage of white faces, which typically fill portrait galleries. Museums need to embrace the overall picture and experience of a contemporary society if they want to remain relevant. While African American and Latino communities continue to increase in size across America, people of color account for less than 10% of museum visitors throughout the country. This is unacceptable in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles (to name a few), where thriving communities of black and latino individuals account for a significant portion of the overall urban population. Some museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum, have made a significant effort to re-contextualize its presentation of art to reflect a more diverse audience. However, there is much more that needs to happen so that the following inspirational quote from Michelle Obama is ensured as a reality:
“I’m thinking about all the young people – particularly girls, and girls of color – who in years ahead will come to this place and look up and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution, I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”
Parents and teachers should be afforded ample opportunities to take their children to museums. Museums can clearly do a better job forming bonds with urban families who live nearby but have never visited a cultural institution for a variety of reasons, notwithstanding: economic issues (some museums charge high admission fees), the perception of not fitting in (museums feel elite), and lack of relevant content (more diverse content is needed). Schools should make enough room in their educational curriculum and programing to ensure that they’re taking their students to museums. Students need to learn outside of the classroom and see the wide range of cultural resources that are available to them. They also need to see images that they can connect with on a social, emotional, and personal level. Showing these students images from the Western canon (largely white male subjects) will have little impact or relevance to their lives. Their artistic education should let them realize that they are beautiful, timeless, and strong, just like the images they see of prominent historical and contemporary figures like Barack and Michelle Obama.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Dewey, John (1938). Experience & Education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi.
Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum.
Suoranta, Juha; Vaden, Tere (2007). “From Social to Socialist Media: The Critical Potential of the Wikiworld”. In Critical Pedagogy: Where are We Now?. Bern, Peter Lang.