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Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald (2018, image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Monday marked one of the biggest news headlines ever for black art, when the National Portrait Gallery unveiled official paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama. And it gave rise to a Black Art Critic emergency.

The unveiling of the Obama portraits was an emotional event — and for black women, who have so long been cut out of the official canon, the historic gravity of the moment could not be overstated. When the images were revealed, social media feeds immediately flooded with praise and disappointment. Many commentators questioned the likeness of Michelle Obama’s portrait to the woman herself. They asked whether the painting really captured the personality and persona that they had individually and collectively imagined.

Watching this in real time, I felt deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps these critiques filled an emotional void for social media audiences, which can be quick to judge with little context. But they also felt disrespectful to the artist. Sherald’s body of work is formally compelling, with her signature grayscale black bodies in flattened yet luminescent washes of color, with pops of saturated hues. She deserves, if nothing else, a thoughtful response.

Commentators seemed to race to publish their opinions of the portrait. Elizabeth Wellington of the Philadelphia Inquirer said Mrs. Obama looked “more like Kerry Washington than Mrs. O,” while Holland Cotter of the New York Times, who overlooked a lot of cultural context in his review, sounded skeptical. “To be honest, I was anticipating — hoping for — a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be,” he wrote. In the face of both the reverence and the dissatisfaction, I felt pressure to take a stance, to feel something definitive about the portrait.

The thing is, I felt ambivalent about the painting. It was cool, aloof and mysterious.  I wasn’t sure what to do with it. But because of the obstacle-strewn experience of black womanhood, I acutely appreciated the magnitude of the occasion, and felt compelled to support Michelle Obama and Amy Sherald — even if that meant giving up the opportunity for meaningful, critical dialogue.

There are many aspects to like. Sherald delayed her own success to care for her family, and she has known both heartache and health scares — some of the ultimate sacrifices faced more commonly by black women. The portrait feels emotionally honest, and it speaks of Michelle Obama’s character through the language of symbolism, from the mountain-like composition of her pose to the abstractions on her Milly dress. (Robin Givhan noted that, in addition to referencing the Alabama quilting community, the structure of the dress was meant to suggest “that we’re not quite there yet.”) Sherald and Obama collaborated to bring this intimate space of sisterhood into the public sphere, on their terms — capturing Michelle’s ideals and heritage as well as the grounding fortitude and versatility she brought to the position of First Lady.

But other aspects are challenging, even unsettling. Sherald depicts her black subjects in de-saturated tones. Her work asks the audience to consider the subject with race in the background, instead of the foreground. While some people find freedom in that gesture, others, like myself, struggle to divorce it from the gravity that race carries in our daily lives. Sherald is asking our brains to do something it has been conditioned against: to relearn how to see blackness and individuality, without its most obvious visual cue.

The way Sherald challenges the audience to see differently is one of her strengths. But her choices made me question our criteria for success.

There is an unspoken code of support for black creators. We live with the maxim of striving to be ‘twice as good’ if we want to have our talents recognized; we must be prepared to defend ourselves, and to some extent our race, everytime we put forth an intellectual contribution. It is exhausting and stifling, and requires constant calculus to weigh the value of our work. Looking at a painting, we must not only evaluate the artist’s technical skill, but also correct for the feelings and expectations imposed on her, on her work, by the omnipresent experience of identity.

In moments such as this, I look to critics — experts in the art of discernment — to help me reconcile my aesthetic reactions with the context of the work. This work, featuring a black woman icon by a black woman artist, needed the parsing of black women critics. The parsing of critics whose ways of seeing have been forged in the margins, who can interpret the visual language of blackness.

I know black women critics exist. I’ve read them with my own eyes. But curiously, not many major media outlets ran reviews by black critics in the day or so after its unveiling. (With notable exceptions — Doreen St. Felix published a thoughtful piece in the New Yorker the next day.) It occurred to me, in conversations with other black women following the flood of reactions in the media, that something else could be at play here: voluntary recusal.

I know from personal experience that I, and many other black women, struggle with giving another black woman criticism in public.  Christina Coleman, a senior editor at Essence.com who covered the unveiling, told me: “I think that’s an issue in the community in general. You never want to be hyper-critical of another black person, because what happens is, to the world, we look like a monolithic entity. I think black people try to stave off a lot of negativity, and try not to put that out in the world — because one person represents us all.”

The art critic and curator Sabrina Greig agreed that it’s difficult to share aesthetic opinions about a work that carries so much political importance. “I think critics of color should be careful in how they critique the work in public, to not devalue the artists’ work — especially in our racially divisive climate in 2018.” She noted that many real-time reactions had to do with personal taste about formal qualities in the paintings. “This moment is larger than formal qualities.”

The official portraits by Kehinde Wiley (left) and Amy Sherald (right) (photo by Blair Murphy for Hyperallergic)

I felt ashamed for not loving Michelle Obama’s portrait at first sight. Shame made me want to dig deeper, to understand the artist and her point of view. To get away from the flood of hot takes, and to re-examine this bold shadowy cultural statement in hopes of understanding whether the work succeeded. The painting asks a lot of the viewer. Maybe my initial ambivalence was a good thing, because it led to work and reflection — and the process of discovery was rewarding.

The Obama portraits should not be the subjects of hot takes. They are designed to be viewed through the distance of time. Maybe the reading of Amy Sherald’s portrait, Coleman told me, requires something we aren’t accustomed to having: patience. “We live in a microwave culture where everything has to be instant. We expect instant gratification. We want to be instantly satisfied by something, instantly wowed,” she said. “Let it sit with you. Let it digest.”

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Chiquita Paschal

Chiquita Paschal is an arts journalist and podcaster on a mission to understand how creativity fuels human resilience. Her work has been featured on Gimlet Media's Uncivil, BuzzFeed's Another Round, and...

33 replies on “It’s OK to Feel Ambivalent About Michelle Obama’s Official Portrait”

  1. This portrait is incredible! It is so modern, strong, and beautiful…like Michelle Obama. I find art critics very tiring. Art is such a personal experience, you like it or you don’t like it. I love this portrait. Impressions from a sixty something white Woman.

  2. Thanks for this insightful article. I wanted to suggest that there may be a typo in this line: “While some people find freedom in that gesture, others, like myself, struggle to divorce it gravity it carries in our daily lives.”

  3. One aspect of the unveiling troubles me. I read here on Hyperallergic that the painting was commissioned in October 2017. That is a mere three or four months ago. I wonder why Ms. Sherald would agree to rush this painting, which will stand for all time.

    The video clip shows that she had problems with the medium she used, as the face was so glittery with glare you could not see it from some camera angles, while the rest appeared as flat as her work is customarily.

    I do love the allusions to the Gee’s Bend quilts and the monumental pose.

      1. Tom, based on my experience and those of my friends who are painters, three-four months is a very short time to make a painting on that scale.

  4. Why is it a problem for a Black artist to to criticize another Black artist ‘in public’? This article plays into all the preconceived ideas about African American (visual) art, artists, critics, and how that all it ‘fits’ into the larger cultural space in the US. It’s naive and narrow minded to presume that attitudes about race (our own or that of others) determines the meaning of this painting to it’s millions of viewers around the world. Would you say the same about Wylie’s portrayal of Barack?
    It wasn’t ‘the media’, that readily available scapegoat, that informed the immediate reaction that I and others had when we first saw the painting. It was surprise, pure and simple, where is Michelle’s utterly gorgeous gold and brown skin?

    1. Actually the writer was indeed questioning the idea the relationship of black critics to bla k artists. She was not accepting blindly the argument, but open8ng it for discussion and reflection.

  5. A portrait is not a photograph, as Picasso’s “portrait” of Gertrude Stein will clearly tell you. I felt the same “conditioned” way on first viewing; Michelle seemed too European and less “Negro” for lack of a better term. On further viewing, however, Ms. Sherald’s brilliant and bold choices begin to emerge, less portrait than visual narrative of Michelle Obama’s tightrope navigation of the image of First Lady. The choices she made in the rules she broke, the images and fashion statements she promoted, down to the natural hair she sported only after she was no longer the wife of POTUS. Both official portraits will command one “to look again”; the price of freedom of expression via black style and culture frees up freedom for everyone…

    1. Of “Portrait of Madame Matisse (The green line),”1905, Matisse said he was more interested in making an image than making a painting that looked like Madame. In “Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud,” Gayford asked Freud if it mattered that a sitter might not think his portrait was a fair resemblance, and Freud replied that he did not care what the sitter thought.

  6. One of the more interesting aspects of this portrait, is that Michelle Obama is not smiling but seems rather to be appraising us, the viewers. That this should seem like a radical gesture of confidence and quiet authority in a woman, says a lot about her and our time.

    1. Quiet authority is not an accurate representation of our time. Authority was a great word, but to suggest there is a quiet authority is as authentic and genuine as the notion that this is what Michelle Obama looks like. This is what she wishes she looked like.

  7. Amy Sherald’s work deserves to be seen in person as opposed to in reproduction. I was unimpressed by her portrait that won top honor in the National Portrait gallery’s triennial — until I saw it on the wall. I believe that we too easily forget that the original work still carries a magic that even a good reproduction lacks.

    1. Interesting because this work does not reproduce well and it’s easy to judge it negatively as it looks awkward and clumsy in reproduction, especially as we are looking at a small jpeg as opposed to a large oil painting.

  8. As this thoughtful article concludes, Sherald’s painting does ask a lot of the viewer. I’m neither black nor female nor a critic, but I’m moved to say that this portrait is marvelous because it hits so many targets. Beyond its importance for black women, it intentionally packs a wallop for the rest of us, too, because it underscores a black woman’s strength, depth, and powerful aesthetic as well as — as her husband noted — her sensual beauty. Anyone who takes the time to digest it, as Paschal’s article encourages, will realize in fact that it does capture Michelle Obama: a richly complex human with more facets than just the smiling radiance we’re most accustomed to seeing. She clearly collaborated with how she is depicted: serious and quietly forceful, a stunning woman who also means business. If art is supposed to make us look more closely and think harder, this penetrating painting is a resounding success.

  9. While I am still hoping that this is a much better painting irl than in pictures, a look at Ms Sherald’s other work online gives me the impression that this one is simply not one of her best. Michelle Obama is a vibrant woman full of energy, the depiction in the painting is insipid, flat and lifeless. Other examples of Sherald’s work show life and energy in her subjects. The rest of the painting is marvelous, but a portrait is all about the face, and it doesn’t have to be painted in a detailed realistic fashion to catch a likeness of the sitter. However if Michelle Obama and Amy Sherald are happy with the result, that is what really matters.

  10. Let’s just face it, without all the black this and that of the artist. The portrait is suppose to be about our former First Lady Michelle Obama. The painting does not look like Michelle Obama.

    1. Still, Cristo, the color of her skin may be a point the artist wishes to highlight. The artist is a writer of light and color, line, form, and texture. I do sense something whitewashed or faded in her skin, but I am not sure it is negative, but powerful. She is not someone to be taken lightly. She is powerful because she is stately and kind.

      1. That’s fine, my fear is that we will now have “black art,” and other art. One of the artists I admire is an American painter named Henry Tanner. His art is simply good art. Artists and the art community should not let politicians tell us what’s good or bad art or place our work in categories that support and promote political agendas. Art should be free of fear, should highlight beauty and oppose oppression. And, in my opinion, should not be used to divide people, creating categories based on the color of an artist’s skin is antithetical to the essence of art.

        1. Well, we do have black art. We have depth and color, relationships to the past. Art provokes even that question you raise, which is from whom and where we come. I am currently reading Beloved and unless you know the history of Blacks, you are condemned not to understand from wence they came and how. I think the work demands that we take it seriously. Isn’t that part of the problem? While, we want to include blacks as normal people, they are not because we, or culture has thought of them as different. That differentiation is what is at issue. How could it ever have happened? Why does it still happen? It is akin to Solnit’s thesis about men involving themselves, like I am doing here, as inherently unqualified. It is wholly not about what I think. How is it that another person, in an “all-men/women-are-created-equal” country is seen as less than or different? Who has that inherent power? To assume to be better is to actually be wrong. Blacks have the moral high ground.

  11. The President’s portrait is great. The First Lady’s is horrible. One’s eye is forced to that square of color on the bottom while her face becomes part of the background. Oh, and it maybe should have born more than a passing resemblance.
    There were no other artists capable of producing a piece?
    I reject the idea that it should have been strongly tied to the black community to the point that nobody else “gets it” unless pointed out by black female critics. This is part of her legacy as First Lady of the United States.
    This portrait should have meaning within the black community but not as representative of her 8 years of service to the country.

  12. Is it not great that the painting has generated interest? Art has that wonderful way of challenging people. Personally I like the painting, although I am not through digesting it. It is majestic in form, contemplative in gesture, human and reveals, for me, an understanding of how she fits in our world. I hope to be able to see it in situ.

  13. This essay on whether the author can be honest is so brilliantly honest–it’s the best thing I’ve read about criticism for a long while. Critics have so many reasons for not giving their true response: commercial considerations (above all), ethnic, gender, friendship, not wanting to be “negative”…

    If you are a white male critic, can you really not see yourself?

    Sherald’s portrait does not portray the Michelle I’ve fallen in love with: wonderfully warm, open, funny and physically animated. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good painting, express the artist’s vision of her position and true to her in some way. When I think about it, it seems quite likely that Michelle Obama might also be still, cool and observant.

  14. Thank you for this very well written observation on the subjective politics involved in critiquing a work of art.

  15. This is the worst article I’ve read in quite a long time. So much so, that I’m tempted to unsubscribe from Hyperallergic.

  16. I agree with “Let it sit with you. Let it digest”. There are new works that you instantly love-hate and others you want to think about. One part of the critique should be about why Barack and Michelle chose those particular artists to do their portraits. Do the portraits reflect the wants of the sitter?

  17. What could be possibly be wrong with the painting? It doesn’t look like her? Of course it does. It is dramatic and lovely, unique and bold, but also softened, in a lovely blue background that complements the colors of her dress, the sea of fabric that seems to relate perhaps to her Black heritage? That I don’t know. But, her posture and pose are recognizable. She is stately and grand. The image is original. Paintings don’t have to be exact, they are impressions, they may embody the soul of the person or whatever, but this is an image of Michelle Obama, who is someone I shall respect and admire. Has anyone tried to paint a person? A painting is not a photograph. Still, this is a close approximation of her.

  18. Michelle Obama is a beautiful, glowing brown-skinned woman but not in this portrait. Here she is as grey and as lifeless as a corpse And fading into the background, at that. Love the dresss and you can read into the dress whatever you like: Gee’s Bend Quilts or Mondrain, etc., but sorry to say, this is simply not a good painting and saying that it does not have to look like her, which it does not, just adds to the travesty that it is. Of course it has to look like her, it’s going to represent her until the last dog dies in this country.

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