ACAD Alumni Tapped to Paint Barack and Michelle Obama Portraits

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are the artists chosen to paint official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, represented in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

By Donald Morris II

One is a well known and respected portrait artist and the other is an up and coming painter in the western art world. The choice of these two artists reflects the Obamas’ long history of showcasing works by black artists as a reflection and critique of contemporary American life and culture.

Photo of Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald / Photo: The Baltimore Sun

Photo of Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley / Photo: New York Times

A Graduate from MICA’s painting department, Amy Sherald (MICA PT ’07) is an artist who deals with figurative paintings of black female subjects using bold, contrasting hues and a careful and attentive eye for pattern. Through her portraits, Sherald investigates the ways that black bodies are shaped by the cultural, political, and social constructs around them. Drawing from her experiences negotiating race and identity in the American south, her portraits exude the boldness of individualism in their dress, posture, and reserved demeanor that takes control of the viewer’s gaze. Sherald has participated in artist residencies in Beijing, China, Oranjestad, Aruba, and independently with Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum.

Kehinde Wiley (SFAI PT ’99) is a renowned portrait artist, well known for his dramatized portraits of black men and women that draw critically from European art historical canon. A graduate of SFAI, Kehinde explores notions of black male sexuality, identity, and the political act of painting in a contemporary culture concerned with the rewriting of black narrative. Collaboration and community engagement take center stage in Wiley’s artistic process, in which he works from photographs of models of color from around communities he interacts with on a personal basis. Subverting the historical western canon of academic oil portraiture, Wiley contests the white body in favor of positing that black portraiture can, too, be sublime in this visual lineage. Wiley’s works are held in collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Denver Art Museum, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, among others.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has tapped Wiley and Sherald to interpret portraits of the former President and First Lady respectively, deviating from the history of neoclassical portraiture of government officials. This is the first time black artists have been selected to paint a presidential couple for the Gallery. The Obamas’ choices come at a time when figurative painting and portraiture are growing in popularity among young painters interested in exploring race, gender and identity or in simply correcting the historic lack of nonwhites in Western painting.

These works of art are slated to be revealed in early 2018, when they will go on view in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

In a contemporary history in which black narrative is being revisited, it is important to showcase the works of two painters who draw from multiple histories of art- some well known, and others culturally suppressed. Congratulations to Sherald and Wiley moving forward as creative people.