Michelle Obama's presidential portrait dress has a political backstory

Obama’s Portrait Painter Known For Flowery Paintings of Black Women Decapitating White Women

The large paintings were crafted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, and were the first presidential portraits in the gallery painted by African American artists. If Wiley's impulse was to elevate his subjects, how would he depict the most powerful of people?

The former president and first lady made history by - not only posing for the portraits - but by choosing the black artists who made them.

I think the portrait is one answer.

The jasmine flowers represent Hawaii, Obama's birthplace; chrysanthemums to symbolize Chicago, where he and his family lived before the White House; and African blue lilies to represent his Kenyan heritage.

"Sherald's interpretation of Ms. Obama used a stylized gray hue to portray Black skin tones".

To place the pieces in their artistic and political context, I spoke to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture.

Sherald described her painting practice as a conceptual one, founded not upon accuracy but imagination.

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery Unveils Portrait of President Barack Obama

"Michelle Obama is extraordinary, but she is also the kind of woman that exists in a way that she is 100 percent relatable to all kinds of people, all genders, all around the world", Sherald says.

Throughout her eight years in the White House, designers like Derek Lam, Zac Posen, and Prabal Garung have enjoyed the distinct sartorial honor of dressing Michelle Obama. She's not centered in her painting, but rising above the center. But these portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden. From her husband's first campaign she was scrutinized, even more than her husband, who was the one running-an appearance on "Larry King Live" had viewers nervous about her stridency. It's a nod to the women of Gee's Bend, an isolated Black community in late nineteenth century Alabama, where the women created abstract and asymmetrical quilt designs that defied the traditional geometric palette of American quilts.

Sherald says the gown, which was designed by Milly, "has a connection to the art canon, but it also speaks to black culture". In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture.

Wiley, an established artist whose work is held by prominent museums worldwide, has produced a characteristically flat, nearly polished surface, with intensely rich colors and a busy, sumptuous background that recalls his interest in portraiture. Portraits can also be entirely conceptual, but the process whereby the National Portrait Gallery commissions presidential portraits is structured to prevent anything too radical emerging from the artist.

But ultimately, it presents something new. It's true that the two look similar aesthetically, but it's far more likely that Beyoncé was influenced by Wiley's work, not the other way around.

An archived version of the story is available to read here.




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