On Monday, Feb. 12, former U.S. President Barack Obama and artist Kehinde Wiley stood atop the stage at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, each grasping the ends of a black veil that covered the seven-foot tall canvas between them. With the unveiling of the portrait traditional and customary for every American president since the opening of the portrait gallery in 1968, the bounds and parameters of this sustained custom to commemorate each president with a unique portrait in the gallery were pushed, experimented with, and revolutionized while maintaining the respect, solidarity, and sanctity of the ceremony for the nation’s highest office.
I would argue that — through its artistic uniqueness and heavy political undertones — this portrait is a decisive, ultimate, and monumental break from the past. Whereas previous presidential portraits remain celebratory and honorary in nature, Wiley’s portrait shines above all that came before it and raises the bar incredibly high for the new standard of presidential portraiture. Portraits of the past show us intensely sober, stately, and frankly boring looks at our presidents, but Obama’s portrait outshines and outmatches each and every one of these dull albeit regal representations. While the works that came before were merely considered presidential portraits, Wiley’s piece declares itself a work of art first and foremost — living, breathing, and integrally connected to the world around it.
Not another dry, repetitive, and traditionally unadventurous portrait, Wiley’s creation is full of life and dignity, full of matchlessness and beauty, full of immense respect and unconditional love for the 44th President of the United States.
Wiley’s painting of President Obama immediately excites the eye. Painted against a backdrop of deep green shrubbery adorned with a variety of flowers that each represent aspects of Obama’s own life — chrysanthemums for Chicago, jasmines for Hawaii, and African blue lilies for his Kenyan heritage — the presidential figure dominates the center of the work. Seated strongly in a wooden chair, the President leans forward to us with his arms crossed, his feet planted, his shirt collar unbuttoned and without tie, and his eyes ever open and ever fixed on us — the people.
It isn’t difficult to notice how this portrait stands unique against the typical depiction of all presidents before. Instead of the usual pose and bland palette of colors that depicts the President of the United States, Wiley’s creation plays with color, background, light, stature, and focus in ways that have never been painted for the presidential portraits of years past. It is a testament — an artistic one that will hang in the Smithsonian for generations and generations to come — to the 44th President of the United States, to the service, grace, respect, and honor of President Obama.
Wiley’s depiction takes on a political message and overture in addition to the direct reverence that it holds for President Obama. In Wiley’s the “nature of the president’s pose is not sword-wielding or swashbuckling. It’s contemplative. Humble. Open to the world in its possibilities. A man of the people.” These elements hearken back to the characteristics and the ideals of the Obama presidency, shining an illuminating light and painting them into history.
Obama in this portrait is not a distant political figure. He isn’t a relic of history, and he isn’t immortalized as a deity in American history for the ages. In essence, he doesn’t stand above the people, looking down from the elevated nature of the highest office in the nation, the most powerful position in the United States and the free world. Paradoxically, the human who occupied arguably the most powerful position in the world looks at us as an equal. He leans in, looks in our eyes, embraces our presence, and invites us to engage. His eyes hold the weight of truth, the nature and need for hope in our life, and his stance is a reassuring one. In this creative depiction of the president, we feel something closer to him than anyone who came before him. His tie is off, and his shirt is unbuttoned. Here and now, he’s sitting with us, looking to us as a friend.
It is in this grand overture that Wiley’s painting soars. In its transcendence of the pomp and circumstance of the office of the President of the United States, the portrait shines a light on the simple yet often forgettable fact of the political and social nature of the president. That man or woman, that citizen in the Oval Office, that individual in the highest office in the land is ultimately one of us. Even greater, that human should care about us, should listen to our struggles, should hope and dream and work for a better future for us all.
Against the backdrop of a reality of lies, racism, misogyny, hatred, bigotry, discrimination, neglect, exclusion, and abandonment in the office of the current President of the United States, Wiley’s art and its depiction of President Obama stand as a testament not only to the legacy of Barack Obama in the consciousness of American history, but also to the ideals and aspirations that we — as the people — in the United States can only hope to witness again in the role of the President. It shows the intersectional power of art and politics, the hopes and idealistic optimism intrinsic in our American democracy.
It is in this way that Wiley’s creation sets a new bar for this annual tradition. Rather than a conventional recreation year after year of the same subject and form, the institution of the presidential portrait has found a new stature, relevance, and significance with the work of Kehinde Wiley. He has reformed and implemented the very much political role that art can play in our society and used it to shine a light on the connections between art and politics. Wiley’s portrait stands in a glory of its own, completely separate and completely significant in its own light against the past of tradition and convention.
Kaveh Badrei is a sophomore from Houston, Tex. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.