In Brief

Artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald Chosen to Paint Official Obama Portraits for the Smithsonian

Next year the portraits of the Obamas will enter the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and judging by the choice of artists they’re sure to be impressive.

Kehinde Wiley speaking in a video created by the Brooklyn Museum for their New Republic exhibition. He is seated in a gallery surrounded by his paintings. (via Brooklyn Museum’s YouTube channel)

Next year two Obama portraits will be unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Today the Wall Street Journal announced who the artists responsible for those official images will be: Brooklyn-based Kehinde Wiley, and Baltimore-based Amy Sherald. Both American artists are known for their portraits of African-American individuals, and both demonstrate an emotional sensitivity to their subjects in their work.

Wiley’s New Republic exhibition is currently touring the country. Organized by Eugenie Tsai of the Brooklyn Museum, the show is currently on display at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. Wiley is known for his vibrant portraits of African-American men referencing the visual language of European Old Masters painting. He is represented by Sean Kelly Gallery in New York.

Artist Amy Sherald, left, with one of her paintings, right, “The Make Believer (Monet’s Garden)” (2016), oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches. (Private Collection, Chicago). (all images courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago)

While Sherald is the lesser known of the two figures, she is quickly gaining a reputation as an artist who probes how people construct and perform their identities in public. She is represented by Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago and is currently showing in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Fictions exhibition, curated by Connie H. Choi and Hallie Ringle.

Back in July, Hyperallergic critic Seph Rodney considered the possibilities for an official portraitist, including Wiley, but Sherald wasn’t on his list. About the possibility of Wiley, he wrote:

Kehinde Wiley is also an option. Of course, his portrait accomplished in the style of courtly painting would gives us the triumphant Obama, the Nobel prize winner, the man to pull us back from the brink of financial meltdown. However, the drawbacks are that such a portrait would only emphasize that confidence that too often was read as haughtiness, and if Wiley works like he usually does the overall physical comportment might look too staged, too stiff.

When we posted this story on Facebook, it was clear that Hyperallergic readers preferred Wiley over all the other options. Perhaps we should expect a triumphant Obama portrait in the works, and frankly, considering the recent attempts to diminish his legacy, it’s probably best that the former President embrace his historical role and make a stand with what is sure to be an eye-catching work.

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