Obamas unveil unconventional portraits in Washington

WASHINGTON: Former US first couple Barack and Michelle Obama unveiled their portraits at Washington’s National Gallery Monday, two contrasting works by African American artists that shocked and delighted.

The paintings by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, were revealed at a star-studded event that is a rite of passage for most former American presidents.

The museum holds portraits of all American ex-commanders in chief, but these latest additions stand in stark contrast to the more buttoned-down approach of traditional presidential portraiture.

Both show their subjects, America’s first black presidential couple, looking cool and confident, a stark contrast to the bubbling swamp of anger and braggadocio that is political Washington today.

Wiley painted the ex-president against a signature lush botanical backdrop.

Obama, in a serious seated pose at the edge of a wooden chair, is enmeshed in a thicket of leaves and flowers that recall the tropical hues of the 44th president’s home state of Hawaii.

“How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” Obama joked, as he thanked staff and friends in attendance.

The internet quickly got busy making jokes about him being stuck in a bush.

Obama also praised Sherald for “so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.”

The Baltimore-based artist rendered Michelle Obama in her trademark grayscale, with only a few splashes of coral, pink and yellow, against an eggshell blue backdrop.

The resulting image makes the subject’s race almost an afterthought.

Obama’s dress, true to form for a first lady whose wardrobe was often the focus of attention, dominates the frame.

As in Sherald’s previous paintings of African American subjects, Michelle Obama appears poised and powerful as she looks down on the viewer.

Michelle expressed her joy on the portrait in an Instagram post which read, “As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment. Nobody in my family has ever had a portrait – there are no portraits of the Robinsons or the Shields from the South Side of Chicago. This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history. But the fact is that none of this would be possible without the extraordinary artist and woman behind this portrait, Amy Sherald. Thank you, Amy – it was a joy to work with you and get to know you.”

Obama’s, whose portrait will be hung alongside those of former presidents, including the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, also shared his thoughts on Instagram where he wrote, “Today, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald became the first black artists to create official presidential portraits for the Smithsonian. To call this experience humbling would be an understatement. Thanks to Kehinde and Amy, generations of Americans — and young people from all around the world — will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens. They’ll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic. And I hope they’ll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.

Michelle Obama’s likeness will hang at the gallery until November this year.

The official portraits of the Obamas, which will be displayed the White House, have not yet been commissioned.

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