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.”
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.”