A West Side artist’s inspiration begins at home

To find her voice, Alexandria Eregbu looked to her heritage

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018 3:22 PM

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Artist Alexandria Eregbu grew up in Iowa, but she and her family would often travel to her great-grandparents’ house in East Garfield Park.

“My great-grandfather was a photographer who built a dark room in the basement,” she recalled during a recent interview. “Seeing his work over four decades, and Chicago as it changed over time, is inspiring.”

Her great-grandmother, a master quilter, was another major source of inspiration.

“She was one of the reasons why I learned and started to sew,” Eregbu said. “And perhaps one of the reasons why I’m so obsessed with cloth and fibers.”

So when it was time to go to college, she knew that she wanted to study art and that she wanted to study it in Chicago. She attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

By Eregbu’s own account, actually becoming an artist wasn’t easy, but her work and persistence eventually paid off. Now living in Austin, she specializes in three-dimensional pieces that feature a wide variety of materials. 

Eregbu draws upon her family’s legacy, as well as the traditions of African Americans and Nigeria, her father’s homeland. 

According to her website, Eregbu uses a wide array of materials in her work — including feathers, obsidian, indigo dye, granite tombstones, cowrie shells, daisies, rhinestones, cotton, linen, Kanakelon hair and black vinyl. 

She uses them to create objects and installations of various sizes. Photography is a component of many of her installations. While her great-grandmother’s work was a major influence, Eregbu said she gravitated toward textiles in large part because of the energy of “communities of people.” 

In college, she said, the art history curriculum lacked any information about black artists—American or otherwise. She added that it wasn’t until after she graduated that she really started to explore her heritage on her father’s side of the family, delving into the culture and art of the Igbo and Yoruba people, who live in Nigeria and other West African countries.

“I have been looking to the philosophy, culture and traditions of West Africa as a way to not only approach things differently in the studio, but also add the new dimensions on perspective [and] also engaging the audience and how we present and talk about art,” she said.

She found that many ideas that are part of her heritage — such as the dualism motifs, how what people observe in heavens reflect what they experience on earth, the view of nature as “a resource of knowledge and answers”— were missing from her college curriculum.  

But Eregbu believes that many of these elements were influencing her even without her consciously aware of their influence. 

“I didn’t understand what it was that was drawing me to those things until I understood energy and spirit, the use of spirit to conjure, to protect,” she said. “This is all deeply embedded within not only the artistic practices of the Igbo and Yorrba people, but the values and philosophies of the people.”

After Eregbu graduated in 2013, she, like a lot of her peers, struggled not just to make a living through art, but to make time to create art at all.

“It was difficult.” she said. “I was struggling through work, I could barely afford my rent, yada yada.”

Eventually, Eregbu realized that, even if she couldn’t make the living through art, she should at least make “a very intentional effort” to find ways to be involved in the art world. 

She applied for artist residencies and became a curator, which turned out to be just what she needed.

“Learning from artists who were my peers and colleagues was really inspiring,” Eregbu said. “And I think the few years’ time I spent in this endeavor was the motivation to get my butt back into the studio and start making work on my own. And that’s when things started to unfold. I started getting more shows, more residencies.”

In 2016, Eregbu had her first solo exhibition outside of Chicago. Since then, she has exhibited in many other places. Most recently, she was a visiting lecturer at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore. She’s also completed a Camargo Foundation residency at Cassis, France. 

While Eregbu said that, as a woman of color, she experienced discrimination, she doesn’t believe she experienced it when she pursued her career as an artist.

“I don’t really like to think about race and gender really being a factor,” she said. “At the end of the day, I know that I put my intentions forward and everything that’s come to me is supposed to be.”

Eregbu has been living in Chicago for the past 7 years, and she’s been living in Austin with her maternal grandmother, a long-time community resident, since 2015.

“It’s really strange to say, because Chicago is histrionically a black and indigenous city, but it’s a breath of fresh air to live in a predominantly black neighborhood,” she said. “Being able to walk down the sidewalk and seeing folks not only who look like me, but who knew my family — it’s something that’s becoming rare.”

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

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Beyond ‘Black Panther’: A brief history of Afrofuturism

Excited for Black Panther? So are we. Which is why we’re rolling out obsessive coverage with Black Panther Week.

Among the images glimpsed in Marvel’s first Black Panther trailer was a tribal elder in an emerald suit with a matching lip disc, a body modification found in the Suri and Mursi tribes of Ethiopia. 

Warriors draped in blue “blankets” (or Seanamarena) soon followed, drawn from the Basotho peoples of South Africa. Alongside them were women in red beaded war garb – the Dora Milaje, Black Panther’s female Royal Guard – their vivid outfits remixed from the Maasai ethnoculture of Kenya and Tanzania. 

Black Panther looks like no Hollywood film we’ve ever seen, and it belongs to a deeply rooted artistic philosophy that’s often overlooked: Afrofuturism. 

The term was coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in “Black to the Future,” a 44-page essay from 1993 in which Dery, a white writer, interviews several prominent African American voices: sci-fi author Samuel R. Delaney; musician and former The Village Voice writer Greg Tate; and Tricia Rose, the director of the Center for Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University.

Dery’s definition of the philosophy is as follows:

Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called “Afro-futurism.”

Wakandan throne room in Black Panther.

Wakandan throne room in Black Panther.

Image: Marvel Studios

The unique aesthetic of Black Panther, which has been setting the internet ablaze at regular intervals, can be attributed to its largely black cast and creative team (a rarity in American studio filmmaking), as well as the decision to push back against modern science fiction’s penchant for Western design norms.

The genre has often coded colonized peoples and their cultures as the “alien” or “other,” as seen in the Klingons’ Fu Manchu facial hair on the original Star Trek or the Sand People’s Arab-inspired thawbs in the original Star Wars. This tradition continues to this day, with indigenous extraterrestrial tribes in Avatar and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets being little more than haphazard mixtures of Native American and African iconography.

Black Panther is Afrofuturism writ large, the incorporation of distinctly African and African-American narrative symbolism as a means to reclaim modern blackness. 

Black Panther, on the other hand, paints its human heroes with an authentically pan-African brush, interweaving Wakanda’s advanced technology with imagery straight outta the Continent. This is Afrofuturism writ large, the incorporation of distinctly African and African-American narrative symbolism in sci-fi as a means to reclaim modern blackness. 

In his essay, Dery investigates (among other things), contemporary urban uses of technology – specifically the “beeper culture” of the ’90s, though its modern equivalent would arguably be the carving out of black spaces on social media. 

Delaney expands on this concept, referring to the “scratch” and “sampling” methods of hip-hop remixing as “a specific mis-use and conscientious desecration of the artifacts of technology and the entertainment media.” 

For instance, the beatbox and the “robot” dance, landmarks in the evolution of hip-hop culture, represent the remixing of the human body: a labor force with limited access to tech innovation recreating technology itself, as if in opposition to systems of control. 

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In effect, Afrofuturist art has always been at odds with the norms of the mainstream. The black perspective in America has often lent itself to particularly unsettling genre fiction – like, most recently, Jordan Peele’s Get Out

Though contested by 21st century Afrofuturists, Dery’s comparison of modern African-Americans to “the descendants of alien abductees” offers a metaphorical link between stranger-in-a-strange-land alien tales and the experiences of an entire people uprooted from their homes, forced to exist in a world that is not their own – much as Peele’s protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) must adapt to the conventions and microaggressions of his girlfriend’s suburban family home. 

For many African-Americans today, the largely white mainstreams of both entertainment and politics might still feel like alien worlds to which they are outsiders. As Tate puts it, “Being black in America is a science-fiction experience.”

Novelized science fiction played host to Afrofuturist ideas for the better part of the twentieth century, from authors like Samuel Delaney to Octavia Butler (particularly her Xenogenesis trilogy, which uses the intermingling of human and alien societies to explore cultural hybridization in a manner similar to postcolonial theory). The literary trend remains alive and well today, with the likes of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series of novellas. 

But whether as direct narrative or philosophical backdrop, Afrofuturism has always made its way to other mediums. It’s seen perhaps most prominently in the work of jazz musician Sun Ra, whose space-age “Egyptian alien” aesthetic and incorporation of digital synthesizers remixed and elevated the genre, with transformative live performances acting as vessels for grandiose, regal visual narratives yet unexplored.

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Which brings us, of course, to the King of Wakanda. Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther, much like his “Afrofuturist” label, was a white creation. Their modern definitions, however, hinge on black artistic contributions.

Much of the Panther’s modern mythology and characterization came into being in the late ’90s with writer Christopher Priest, whose storyline “The Client” brought King T’Challa face to face with his metatextual New York roots. But it was Reginald Hudlin’s 2005-2008 run that began to delve into the geopolitics of Wakanda through a modern globalist lens. 

This set the stage for the character’s current print incarnation: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Brian Stelfreeze’s heady political saga “A Nation Under Our Feet,” on which much of the film’s recombining of technology with African tribal symbolism is based. 

In Wakanda, unlike in much of the real world, African history and modern innovation are not treated as mutual exclusives. In Coates and Stelfreeze’s comic, and in the Marvel Studios film, the nation’s ancient culture and its 21st century inventions appear to have evolved not only side-by-side, but as one and the same.

Black Panther is not the only piece of Afrofuturism in the recent American mainstream. Ava DuVernay’s “Family Feud” short for Jay-Z’s 4:44 posits a future filled with intersections of black, female and Native American leadership. Add to that Janelle Monáe’s Fritz-Lang-meets-Sun-Ra cover for The ArchAndroid and DuVernay’s own upcoming A Wrinkle in Time, and you have yourself the gradual re-emergence of a trend. 

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However, there’s little denying that Marvel’s Wakandan saga is the most prominent example of Afrofuturist art in recent years – in part because of the money and widespread distribution behind it, but also in part because it’s arguably the most potent.

As an artistic philosophy within the constraints of both America’s own racial history and within the cultural context of the global West, Afrofuturism exists in opposition to a white, postcolonial status quo – whose normalcy stems from prioritizing Western philosophy and design at the cost of cultures disallowed from achieving their full potential in the past. 

There’s little denying that Black Panther is the most prominent example of Afrofuturist art in recent years.

The premise of Black Panther, as with most Afrofuturist art, goes against the grain of history itself – a violent chronology that stripped African cultures of resources and opportunities, and stripped African peoples of their languages and identities when they were enslaved in America and elsewhere. Few modern African-Americans know their exact origins, and African nations are rarely portrayed in anything resembling positive light in Western media despite their advancements. 

Much of what has come to be known as Western culture was dependent on the systemic destruction of African heritage. Wakanda becoming an integral part of one of Western culture’s longest-running mainstream narratives – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – is a small step towards undoing the contemporary effects of that destruction, whether by way of creating a new narrative of blackness on a global stage, or simply by affording black artists more opportunities.  

Dery’s essay begins with an ominous quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” This rings especially true when defining modern cultural narratives that are broadcast to all corners of the globe. 

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Fittingly, he follows this up with thematically appropriate lyrics from Def Jef’s “Black to the Future,” (for which the essay is named) as if in attempt to unearth the affirming African American counter-foil to the Orwellian omen:

Yo, bust this, Black
To the Future
Back to the past
History is a mystery ‘cause it has
All the info
You need to know
Where you’re from
Why’d you come and
That’ll tell you where you’re going.

It is in the re-envisioning of a future for black people, despite their present systemic oppression in every area from voter suppression to police brutality, that Afrofuturism’s take on the past is born. 

Within the fiction of Black Panther, Wakanda is a nation untouched by Western influence at any point in history, representing the peoples of postcolonial Africa had they been allowed to exist and advance on their own terms. 

Afrofuturism, it would seem, is here to stay. 

But Wakanda is also untethered to any one specific African ethnoculture (although its “official” language is Xhosa, its influences spread far beyond Bantu), thus allowing it to be a collective reclamation of pan-African identity for those in the global African diaspora uprooted centuries ago. 

It is both Afrofuturism as contemporary African advancement, prioritizing non-white, non-Western symbolism in its design, as well Afrofuturism in the context of black America. It transforms a stolen history into a portrait of sci-fi heroism through a character whose superhero mantle is not a thematic externalization of psychosis disconnected from “real identity,” as is the case with most superheroes in the Western individualist paradigm. 

The Batman was the sole creation of Bruce Wayne, a white man who came from old money but had little reason to connect white readers to their roots. The Black Panther, on the other hand, was passed down through unbroken generational lineage – a luxury rarely afforded to African American readers. It’s the Western superhero remixed and reclaimed as a symbol of deeply rooted cultural and tribal identity.

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Perhaps most promising in all this, however, is that there is little in common by way of influence between Black Panther and the other aforementioned modern Afrofuturist examples. Even the film’s own soundtrack, much of which sounds like tribal instruments beamed into a digital future, has yielded its own distinctly Afrofuturist feel.

“All The Stars,” the recently released music video from Kendrick Lamar and SZA, is as unapologetically African as the film, bringing Lamar face to face with gilded Nubian goddesses arriving like alien messengers within a luminous floating temple. But there is barely a narrative or aesthetic element that overlaps with Black Panther itself. 

They are each their own unique entities, telling their own stories and carving out their own spaces for contemporary and historical blackness within the mainstream. There is much yet to be explored, and given that there is no singular avenue to Afrofuturist art, there is much yet to be reclaimed. Afrofuturism, it would seem, is here to stay. 

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Obamas Unveil Official Portraits, Reveal Lasting Legacy

Obamas Unveil Official Portraits, Reveal Lasting Legacy
(Barack by Kehinde Wiley; Michelle by Amy Sherald; images courtesy the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery)

By Sarah Goodman

Rabat – As the former president and first lady of the United States unveiled their respective portraits on Monday in Washington D.C., Barack and Michelle Obama offered a glimpse of how they want their legacy to be seen and remembered.

The Obamas’ portraits follow an established Washington tradition: the National Portrait Gallery has commissioned portraits of outgoing US presidents and first ladies since 1962.

However, the Obamas are an unprecedented couple and they continue to break new ground in terms of representation and whom they entrust to represent them.

Just as Barack and Michelle Obama became the first African American couple to be featured on the walls of the Presidential Gallery, so did Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald become the first black artists to create official presidential portraits for the Smithsonian Institution.

Reflecting to the audience, Michelle Obama admitted to feeling “a little overwhelmed” by occasion. “As you may have guessed, I don’t think there is anybody in my family who has ever had a portrait done, let alone a portrait that will be hanging in the National Gallery,” she told the press, celebrities, and politicians present.

“I’m also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who … will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” she added. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”

Both Wiley and Sherald are portraitists who specialize in painting African Americans and in rendering aspects of black culture.

Neither of the Obamas had seen the finished product before the unveiling took place. Mr. Obama, for his part, seemed delighted with the painting, showing him leaning forward intently while seated, suspended in a verdant backdrop of vines and flowers.

Kehinde Wiley is known for august portraits of African American figures and has formerly painted such icons as Michael Jackson, Grandmaster Flash, and the Notorious B.I.G.

The former President admired the artist’s approach to challenging “conventional views of power and privilege,” although he asked Wiley to resist painting him “like Napoleon.” “I have enough political problems,” said Mr. Obama to laughter from the audience.

While less famous than Wiley, Amy Sherald has honed another approach to African American portraiture. (Until relatively recently, she maintained a side job waiting tables at a restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland.) Michelle Obama appears seated, wearing a sleeveless white dress with several geometric, quilt-like patterns. Although Sherald selected a more subdued palette for her painting, her subject appears no less regal.

The former first lady’s hair, arms, and face are different gray shades, which is one of Sherald’s signature ways of painting the skin tone of her African American subjects. The artist has described the influence that black and white photography has had on her style of portraiture.

At Monday’s ceremony, Barack Obama thanked Sherald for painting his wife “so spectacularly” and capturing the “grace, beauty, intelligence, charm, and hotness of the woman that I love.”

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Spermgate? Spermghazi? Spermhannity?

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Sean Hannity took one look at Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait — unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this week — and saw what he wanted to see:

Sean Hannity isn’t a fan of Barack Obama, and he’s not fond of the former president’s new portrait either. Hannity on Tuesday tweeted a remark claiming the portrait had “secret sperm” hidden within the image…. It was perhaps inevitable that controversy would surround the unveiling of former President Obama’s official portrait in February 2018, given that it was painted by Kehinde Wiley, a gay African-American artist who is also a self-professed provocateur.

In fairness to Hannity he didn’t actually look at the portrait. Hannity — or one his staffers — apparently learned about the “secret sperm” hidden in Kehinde Wiley’s painting while scouring the racist message boards on 4Chan:

Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday removed an article from his radio show’s website that claimed the official portrait of former President Barack Obama contained secret images of sperm…. Hannity’s post also included a close-up crop of the portrait, presumably showing the suspected sperm. Dan Lavoie, a staffer for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, flagged that the baseless conspiracy had earlier appeared on the message board website 4Chan — by now a well-known hub for alt-right and white nationalist chatter.

Nothing to see here, folks — just the kids at Fox News mainstreaming racist conspiracy theories.

For the record: Snopes says there are no secret sperms in Obama’s portrait — but there is a vein on Obama’s forehead that might be interpreted as a sperm cell by the type of white man who can’t look at a powerful, attractive, accomplished black man without secretly thinking about hot, runny, delicious sperm. I have a file full of emails from guys like that — I wonder how many are from Sean Hannity?

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Obama Portrait Artists Merged the Everyday and the Extraordinary

“He and I make different sartorial decisions,” Mr. Obama continued, a joking reference to the Mr. Wiley’s bold clothing choices (he wore a black-and-white patterned suit to the ceremony). “But what we did find was we had certain things in common. Both of us had American mothers who raised us with extraordinary love and support. Both of us had African fathers who were absent in our lives.”

Photo

Michelle Obama and her portraitist, Amy Sherald. “She’s fly,” Mrs. Obama said. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

[ Read Holland Cotter’s assessment of the portraits. ]

Mr. Wiley, 40, whose father is Nigerian, was raised along with four siblings in South Central Los Angeles by his African-American mother, who relied on welfare benefits and earnings from the family thrift shop. His mother was present at the Portrait Gallery ceremony, and Mr. Wiley thanked her from the stage, with tears in his eyes.

“We did not have much but she found a way to get paint,” he said. “The ability to picture something bigger than that piece of South Central L.A. — you saw it, you did it, thank you.”

The artist also thanked Mr. Obama “for giving me a chance” and “for giving this nation a chance to experience your splendor.”

Part of what Mr. Obama saw in Mr. Wiley’s work, the former president said, was the capacity to elevate ordinary people to the level of royalty, those “so often out of sight and out of mind.”

“Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform and said they belong at the center of American life,” Mr. Obama said. “That was something that moved me deeply, that’s part of what I believe politics should be about — not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down but rather that it comes from the bottom up.”

On a lighter note, Mr. Obama said that, while he and Mr. Wiley saw eye to eye on most elements of the painting, there were a number of negotiating points during their two sittings. “I tried to negotiate less gray hair, and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked,” Mr. Obama said. “I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”

Video

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald on Their Obama Portraits

After Barack and Michelle Obama’s portraits were unveiled on Monday, the artists spoke about their experiences in an interview on Facebook Live.

By ROBIN POGREBIN on Publish Date February 12, 2018. .

Mr. Wiley tried posing him in settings “with partridges and scepters and thrones,” he said, even “mounting me on horses.”

“I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon,” Mr. Obama said. “You’ve got to bring it down just a touch.”

The former president also thanked Ms. Sherald “for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.”

Ms. Sherald, in her remarks, paid tribute to Mrs. Obama. “You exist in our minds and hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you,” she said. “What you represent to this country is an ideal — a human being with integrity, intellect, confidence and compassion. And the paintings I create aspire to express these attributes.”

Among the prominent figures who turned out for the ceremony were Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker, and his wife, the actress Kate Capshaw, who helped fund the commission of the portraits. Also in attendance were several former members of Mr. Obama’s administration, including Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general; David Axelrod, the former senior strategist; Jay Carney, the former press secretary; and Sam Kass, Mr. Obama’s senior policy adviser for nutrition (who sat with his baby in his arms). “We miss you guys,” Mr. Obama told them, in his remarks.

Mr. Wiley’s work often features African-Americans in the regal poses of emperors and kings, his own distinctive riff on historic portraiture. The Obama portrait, too, has its own majesty. But the former president is also depicted in a chair, with his hands crossed and elbows on his knees — a posture of informality and intimacy.

The two men paged through Mr. Wiley’s collection of art history books and thought about “the grand tradition of presidential portraits,” Mr. Wiley said, in an interview after the unveiling. “Then we decided very quickly that we were just going to strike out a path of our own and try to create a type of singular narrative surrounding what this picture looks like — discarding history but also embracing it at once.”

“The narrative had to do with accessibility, the narrative had to do with a language of openness,” Mr. Wiley added. “There were no ties, it’s an open collar, it’s a much more relaxed body language — the sense of repose yet at the same time a kind of radical vigilance in the eyes.”

Ms. Sherald’s portrait of Mrs. Obama similarly conveys a certain casualness. But, dressed in a flowing white patterned gown, the former first lady also projects what Ms. Sherald called “a quiet, strong presence,” one in keeping with Ms. Sherald’s own restrained style.

“You just feel connected to them because they’re so much like you. They just happen to be the first black president and the first black first lady. But other than that, they’re like your mother or your cousin or your dad,” Ms. Sherald said in an interview afterward. “It was great to walk into the Oval Office and to see these brown faces.”

Born in Columbus, Ga., Ms. Sherald waited tables and worked in an unheated studio before having her first solo show in Chicago and becoming the first woman to win the Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever competition. She was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at age 30 — just as she was earning her master’s degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art and received a transplant at 39.

In selecting the artists, the Portrait Gallery worked with three advisers: Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; Bill Allman, the former White House curator; and Michael Smith, the Obamas’ White House decorator.

“We’re really trying to engage contemporary artists today to be doing portraits,” said Kim Sajet, the Portrait Gallery’s director, in an interview after the ceremony, “to be thinking about the importance of what portraiture does in communicating with people.”

By choosing two black artists, Ms. Sherald said, the Obamas sent a strong message that people of color and paintings by people of color also belong on museum walls. “Something big happened, something that wasn’t supposed to happen happened: we had our first black president and our first black first lady,” Ms. Sherald said. “Their choices of Kehinde and I represent that.”

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The Obamas, Olympic Games, Republican Party: Your Monday Evening Briefing

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Credit The New York Times

3. Republicans have structural advantages in the race for control of the House this fall. But they’re eroding.

Those factors — like incumbency, geography and gerrymandering — have been offset by the retirements of Republican representatives and court rulings that have altered or torn up Republican-drawn congressional maps.

They still have enough going for them to win the House even if they lose the popular vote by a wide margin. But their edge has shrunk considerably.

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Photo

Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

4. At the Winter Olympics, the Dutch team swept the first women’s speed skating event and Mikael Kingsbury of Canada won gold in moguls skiing. Here’s our full coverage from Pyeongchang, South Korea. Above, the U.S. skaters Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani winning bronze.

Fascination has surrounded North Korea’s cheerleaders, praised as human olive branches and criticized as singing, dancing spearheads of a propaganda campaign. Here’s what we’ve learned about them.

And one of our most popular stories today is a throwback: In 1982, the Norwegian cross-country skier Oddvar Bra collided with a skier from the Soviet Union. Somehow, a national myth was born. (So far, Norway is leading the medal count.)

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Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

5. A huge oil spill — one unlike any before — is beginning to contaminate some of the most crucial fishing grounds in Asia.

Up to 111,000 metric tons of nearly invisible condensate, a toxic, liquid byproduct of natural gas production, have flowed into the East China Sea after a fiery collision sank an Iranian tanker a month ago. Above, a buyer checking fish on an island near Shanghai.

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Credit Jessica Hill for The New York Times

6. Five months after Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Ricans are still in limbo.

Thousands of families have been staying in hotel rooms provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as they decide whether to go back or forge ahead elsewhere. Above, a father and son at a Red Roof Inn in Hartford, Conn.

Many have described confusion and anxiety about whether they will be able to stay as deadlines rapidly approach — for some, as soon as this week.

“Time is against us,” one woman said.

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Credit The New York Times

7. You might think that the country’s tap water is generally safe, besides outlier places like Flint, Mich. Not necessarily.

A new study found that, since 1982, between 3 and 10 percent of the United States’ water systems have violated federal health standards each year.

Here’s what we know about the places that struggle to meet the federal rules.

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Credit Sony Pictures, via Associated Press

8. How should allergies be portrayed in children’s movies? Not the way Sony’s newly released “Peter Rabbit” did, many parents agreed, drawing an apology from the filmmakers.

Slingshot-wielding rabbits exploit Tom MacGregor’s allergy to blackberries by launching one into his mouth. He injects himself with an EpiPen but experiences anaphylaxis and collapses.

“I’m pretty sure Beatrix Potter will be turning in her grave about now,” one woman in Britain said.

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Credit Left, Kehinde Wiley; right, Amy Sherald

9. The unveiling of presidential portraits often draws little notice.

Not so as Barack and Michelle Obama became the first African-American presidential couple to have their likenesses enshrined at the National Portrait Gallery. They chose African-American artists to render them — Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

“Mr. Wiley depicts Mr. Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker,” our critic Holland Cotter writes. “Ms. Sherald’s image of Mrs. Obama overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool.”

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Credit Jada Yuan/The New York Times

10. One down, 51 to go.

Jada Yuan, The Times’s much-envied new travel columnist, started her yearlong tour of our 52 Places to Go list with a trip to New Orleans.

On her first visit to the city, eight years ago, she writes, she danced in the streets so much that she wore holes through the bottoms of her brand-new sneakers. It was “the only place in the world where I’ve had such a good time that the shoes melted right off my feet.”

On this visit, she found a city in the midst of an upswing, with a fierce pride and a spirit of forgiveness. Here’s her full dispatch.

Have a great evening.

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Twitter users mock official Obama portraits

Critics blast images as bizarre and unrepresentative of the first couple


Published 12:47 pm, Monday, February 12, 2018


The official portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled Monday at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

President Obama’s portrait was painted by Kehinde Wiley, a Yale-trained artist known for his depictions of African-American subjects. The painting shows the former president sitting pensive in a brown chair amid shrubbery and flowers.

The First Lady was done in a more muted style by the artist Amy Sherald and depicted her sitting, with a Mona Lisa-like expression, gazing out beyond the canvas.

Both were the first African-American artists to paint official portraits of a first couple.

Online, the Twitter commentariat were unsparing, with critics blasting the images as bizarre and unrepresentative of the Obamas.

sorry pic.twitter.com/ApQYOf5XF7

— Shoshana Weissmann, Sloth Committee Chair (@senatorshoshana) February 12, 2018

Congrats to Regina King on her portrait being placed in the National Portrait Gallery! pic.twitter.com/1DENQ8WKQS

— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) February 12, 2018

1. Obama

2. Lucy In the Field With Flowershttps://t.co/lZ1hiUOeza pic.twitter.com/1pCALWuGpa

— Jon Levine (@LevineJonathan) February 12, 2018

WATCH: You can actually see Barack Obama do a “yikes, that’s awful” double take looking at Michelle Obama’s portrait, then look back at his cool one. pic.twitter.com/2nF3ffmIUF

— Tim Young (@TimRunsHisMouth) February 12, 2018

Such an unusual portrait for @MichelleObama pic.twitter.com/CrvgzIVrBp

— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) February 12, 2018

Between Two Ferns? https://t.co/jVTb5m0tyt

— Tiana Lowe (@TianaTheFirst) February 12, 2018

This is a beautiful portrait. It looks very little like Michelle Obama pic.twitter.com/1CsRrWIJtN

— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) February 12, 2018

Obama’s new portrait looks awfully familiar… pic.twitter.com/S5wenGJTPq

— Colleen Wordock (@cwordock) February 12, 2018

wait no sean wat are you doing pic.twitter.com/bLABp3wq4E

— delrayser (@delrayser) February 12, 2018

Read original story Twitter Drags Obama Portraits: ‘Yikes, That’s Awful’ At TheWrap

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Black Panther brings Afrofuturism into the mainstream

Black Panther is an undeniable, major cultural moment. A film that places a black superhero front-and-centre of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, features a black director in Ryan Coogler, and a majority black cast (a star-packed one at that, from Michael B. Jordan to Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya to Lupita Nyong’o). 

Meanwhile, UCLA released a report on diversity in last year’s top-grossing films, uncovering that people of colour accounted for only 13.6% of film leads, remaining underrepresented by a factor of three to one.

Yet, not only are we inflicted with such a dire absence of POC characters, but a consistency in Western-centric views of Africa that largely stereotype and diminish its countries and cultures. Black Panther, however, not only offers an Afrocentric perspective, but one that draws on the rich, layered concept of Afrofuturism, born out of black artists imagining the endless possibilities of new futures. 

Black Panther follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), King of Wakanda, a fictional African nation whose discovery of vibranium has helped make it the most technologically advanced in the world. A concept which falls neatly into line with the Afrofuturist practice, though there’s little consensus as to its exact meaning or definition. It’s one so variable, wide-ranging, and often personal, that it can encompass all at once: feminist ideology (Black Panther represents this well, including in the all-female bodyguard unit the Dora Milaje), mysticism, cosmology, mythology, and metaphysics.

Ryan Coogler, on his own terms, sees any form of label ultimately constricting, especially since the increasingly “open-sourced” nature of technology has meant that, “more definitions are embraced, people make their own definitions”. 

However, if there is a central purpose to the notion of Afrofuturism, the director best explains it as thus: “I think that views of Africa and African culture, almost as a direct result of colonisation, are oftentimes very limited in terms of time. It’s explored only in certain chunks of time. And I think, because the continent of Africa and humanity on that continent is so old, you know, that that’s a horrible disservice to the people that come from those cultures.”

“So, I think Afrofuturism is kind of a response to that. It finds a way to bridge the cultural aspects of the ancient African traditions with the potential of the future. Just looking at Africans and African culture in that context is refreshing, you know, when you’re used to looking at it in the context that mainstream media tends to portray it.”

Black Panther – trailer

The term was first coined in 1996 by critic Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future”, which examines the sci-fi works of African-American writers such as Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler, while also questioning why black voices are largely absent from a genre whose themes are so often built around ideas of marginalisation. 

“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Dery writes. “Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers – white to a man – who have engineered our collective fantasies?”

However, though Dery was the first to formally recognise it, Afrofuturism seems already to have been fairly widespread by the late ‘50s. There are several texts even considered to be predecessors to the genre; one of the earliest being W.E.B Du Bois’ recently uncovered short story “Princess Steel”, dated to 1908, about a black sociologist who invents a “megascope” that can see across time and space. 

black-panther.jpg

Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia (l) and Letitia Wright as Shuri (r) in Black Panther (Disney)

George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), meanwhile, is believed to be the first sci-fi novel by an African-American, examining contemporary race relations through the lens of satire, as the story follows a black doctor who invents a serum which removes all pigmentations from the body, thus making black individuals look white.

One of Afrofuturism’s most crucial heralds was Sun Ra, often credited with first introducing its philosophies to music. Born Herman Blount, he would recount how, when in college, he experienced a life-changing hallucinatory vision in which he was abducted from Earth and brought to Saturn, where the future was unveiled to him. Composing avant garde music which tied together the full spectrum of jazz, while blending the aesthetics of Egyptian mythology and sci-fi, his persona came with the claim that he was actually an emissary from Saturn on a mission to preach peace.

”I never wanted to be a part of planet Earth, but I am compelled to be here, so anything I do for this planet is because the Master-Creator of the Universe is making me do it. I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me,” he explained, as quoted in a 1989 press release by A&M Records.

His 1973 album Space is the Place gave way to a film of the same name, which he co-wrote and starred in as himself. The film sees Sun Ra, after landing on a new planet, decide to found an African-American colony on its soil, subsequently travelling through Oakland, California, in an effort to spread word of his plans. 

These same ideas were also reflected in the work of George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic collective, forging an eclectic take on funk that encompassed both psychedelia and sci-fi, as best demonstrated by the 1975 Parliament album Mothership Connection and its single of the same name. The song introduces Clinton’s messianic alien alter ego Star Child, who declares: “We have returned to claim the Pyramids”. 

mld-21338-r.jpg

Forest Whitaker as Zuri in Black Panther (Disney)

Afrofuturistic themes can also be seen in the music of Afrika Bambaataa, Jonzun Crew, Warp 9, Deltron 3030, Outkast, and Ras G. More recently, Janelle Monae brought cybernetic vibes to her Metropolis concept series, which includes the album The ArchAndroid. There was also a touch of Afrofuturism to be found in Beyoncé’s Grammys performance last year and in several pieces of her Lemonade-era iconography, such as references to the pantheon of Yoruba goddesses, including Oshun and Yemoja. 

Indeed, it’s telling that the singer called upon artist Awol Erizku to produce the internet-breaking photo series announcing her second pregnancy, entitled I Have Three Hearts. Erizku’s work is distinctly Afrofuturist in its tone, melding both African mythology and Renaissance iconography to imagine a future in which black individuals can freely reconcile their African heritage and Western culture.

Certainly, the Black Panther comics have their own part to play in the development of Afrofuturism. Though the character originates from white creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the series began to fully engage in Afrofuturist concepts in the hands of black writers: Ta-Nehisi Coates penned the 2015 storyline A Nation Under Our Feet, which integrated distinctive feminist themes, while noted Afrofuturist Nnedi Okorafor is currently the writer on Black Panther: Long Live the King, which finds Wakanda besieged by a monster which destroys all in its path.

Though Coogler’s Black Panther does draw directly on political themes, Afrofuturism has never been about confining itself to any definitive task. Sci-fi may have a long history of following certain anxieties, fears, and social constructs to a sense of natural conclusion, in order to hold up a mirror to our current world, it can also be used as a platform to explore every corner of the unconfined imagination. 

As author Ytasha Womack writes in Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture: “Self-expression in Afrofuturism isn’t about making a statement, it’s about being.”

Black Panther is out in UK cinemas now.

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Presidential portraits of the Obamas revealed

Michelle and Barack Obama. Credit:Supplied
Michelle and Barack Obama. Credit:Supplied    

Jasmine, African blue lilies, and Chicago’s favorite flower, chrysanthemum, flourish in the botanical backdrop of President Barack Obama’s official portrait. The 44th president appears seated in an ornate chair, with leafy vines threatening to climb up his pant leg.

In her official portrait, First Lady Michelle Obama appears seated, too, in a flowing dress designed by Milly. Between her gown, with its touches of geometric patterning, and the sky-blue paint that frames her figure, the painting features a lot of hard-edged abstraction.

On Monday, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled the Obamas’ official portraits. President Obama’s portrait, by the Los Angeles–born and New York–based artist Kehinde Wiley, will join the museum’s hall of American presidents, where it will permanently disrupt the march of white presidential paintings. The portrait of Michelle Obama, the work of Baltimore’s Amy Sherald, will be on view with recent acquisitions through November 2018.

These are the first portraits, of course, to depict a black president and first lady. They are not the first presidential portraits to be painted by African American artists—Simmie Knox painted both the Clintons—although they are a first for this museum’s hall. In any case, these portraits represent something new. The black contemporary artists who painted them are known for making works that break down black images in American culture, especially within the world of fine art.

It will take historians many years and volumes to unpack the symbolism of the Obama era. The former First Family picked these artists to do the job in single strokes. They were the right artists to ask. On top of their contributions to the hall of presidents, Wiley and Sherald advanced the conversation about black art and portraiture with their paintings of the Obamas.

Wiley is one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, a painter who has successfully complicated portraiture by pairing black figures, usually men—sometimes stars, sometimes individuals plucked off the street—with Baroque motifs and Renaissance trappings. Sherald is earning a name for subtler portraits that subvert black stereotypes, especially of women. Both artists faced a challenge: Adjust their very stylized approaches to fit the office of the presidency? Or paint the Obamas the same way they paint their other subjects?

Wiley and Sherald both chose the latter approach. Given one of the most important commissions imaginable, Wiley did not back down from his high modernist arch. Far from it. Wiley laced his portrait with botanicals, drawing on flowers from the places that framed the president’s life, namely Kenya, Hawaii, and Chicago. Sherald also chose to stick to her guns with her portrait of Michelle, finding a composition that flatters the first lady while giving over most of the painting to more abstract elements.

Sherald is a rising star in the art world. The debut of her painting at the Portrait Gallery represents a homecoming of sorts: Sherald rocketed to renown after winning the museum’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016. Typical of her style, the first-place portrait, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)(2013), features a woman whose almost ethereal, charcoal-gray skin tone contrasts with the vermillion of her chrysanthemum fascinator and the crisp white of the ceramic teacup and saucer she holds in her gloved hands. The portrait of Michelle is a bit more straightforward: She is seated and posed and seems less like an allegory than most of Sherald’s subjects. But the painting is also modern, unfixed in any time, very much unlike the typically prim portraits of first ladies.

While Sherald’s work has only recently captured national attention, she has already made her mark on Washington, D.C. One of her portraits, Grand Dame Queenie (2012), hangs in place of pride in the art galleries at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The image was broadcast widely in promotions for the museum’s 2016 opening. Sherald has since joined the board at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and earlier this year, she received the prestigious David C. Driskell Prize from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. And in May, Sherald will have her first major solo show, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Wiley’s work hardly needs any introduction. His paintings have shown up in numerous institutional surveys, most recently in “A New Republic,” organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. That solo show toured to museums in six states. Roberta Smith praised Wiley’s grand ambition in The New York Times while jabbing at his “often thin, indifferently worked surfaces.” He received the State Department’s Medal of Arts late in the Obama years.

A 2012 profile in New York examined one of Wiley’s studios, this one in Beijing, where assistants help to lay down the Renaissance patterns that Wiley uses for his abstract backdrops. The artist’s reliance on studio painters hardly sets him apart from any other blue-chip artist at the height of his career, but the painterly nature of Wiley’s work, plus his sheer prominence, sets his critics off. Some of them can’t accept the audacity of his project—to sample from Old Masters even if his brushstroke does not match theirs. The writer Vinson Cunningham, for one, has questioned whether his portraiture is radical enough.

Market-friendly yet confrontational, historical yet anti-history, contemporary yet classical—Wiley embraces broad contradictions happily. The daring in swapping out Napoleon for Ice T in an Ingres portrait is obvious. It’s an act of homage but also a rebuke of the canon. And with his painting of Obama, Wiley did not stand down from this project. It’s an exquisite figure painting, perfectly capturing Obama’s professorial nature, his hands folded across his lap as he leans forward—tieless—as if studying the viewer. Yet the backdrop is wild and flattened, as if he’d simply photoshopped the president into a meme. That’s a painterly comment on every presidential portrait that has come before his.

Of the two selections, the pick of Sherald to paint Michelle Obama may be the bolder stroke. It is likely to mean more for Sherald’s career, which almost never took off: The artist had a heart transplant, at age 39, in 2012. Her portraits can be inscrutable. Her subjects frequently appear straight faced or severe, and their dress ranges from Kennedy Camelot (gloves and hats, scarves and sashes) to contemporary casual. The focus on anachronistic fashions and everyday figures is reminiscent of the work of the late portrait artist Barkley L. Hendricks—or maybe it’s just the similarly cool temperature of Sherald’s paintings.  

Most presidential portrait unveilings don’t generate this much attention. With a couple of exceptions—John F. Kennedy by Elaine de Kooning or George Washington by Gilbert Stuart or Rembrandt Peale—the lot of them are records and little more. Important records, perhaps, especially when an official portrait conveyed most all that the public knew of a president, such as Mathew Brady’s antebellum photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Tapping contemporary artists for the job raises the stakes. With their portraits of the Obamas, Wiley and Sherald have pushed the genre even further.

The Atlantic

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Barack and Michelle, like never before

Their portraits — painted by African American artists — will shake up the assumptions of visitors to US presidential galleries.


IMAGE: Former US president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama alongside their portraits at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

The official portraits of former United States president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are in — and they aren’t like anything else in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

The 44th American president is seen sitting on a wooden armchair that seems to be floating amid dense foliage and flowers in a portrait created by Kehinde Wiley.

Michelle, painted against a robin’s egg blue background, rests her chin on one hand and stares at the viewer with a curious mix of confidence and vulnerability in a canvas painted by Amy Sherald.

The artists, both in their 40s, are the first African-Americans to paint official portraits for the museum and both have dedicated their careers to showcasing people of colour in unique ways.

Unveiling of the portraits

Obama complimented Sherald for her portrait of Michelle.

‘I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love,’ POTUS 44 said.

Wiley, who painted his portrait, Obama quipped, was at a disadvantage because his subject was ‘less becoming.’

‘I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked,’ Obama said tongue firmly in cheek.

‘I tried to negotiate smaller ears — struck out on that as well,’ Obama said, alluding to those celebrated aural lobes.

Barack’s portrait


IMAGE: Kehinde Wiley’s portrait pays homage to Obama’s roots. Obama is portrayed as an accessible and open person, just as what he was during his two-term presidency. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Obama said he was drawn to Kehinde Wiley’s work because the artist challenges conventional views of power and privilege.

Wiley is famous for his depictions of African-American men replacing famous figures in scenes out of Western art, such as Napoleon crossing the Alps on horseback, to point out how people of colour have been missing in historical portraiture.

With these subjects, ‘Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform and said they belong at the centre of American life,’ Obama said.


IMAGE: Obama joked that his attempts to negotiate with Kehinde Wiley on showing less gray hair and smaller ears didn’t work. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

‘That was something that moved me deeply,’ Obama said. ‘Because in my small way that’s what I believe politics should be about — not simply celebrating the high and the mighty, expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather it comes from the bottom.’

In his portrait, Wiley paid homage to Obama’s roots — the president sits in a chair, the backdrop covered in flowers.

There are chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago; jasmine, a flower of Hawaii where Obama grew up; and African blue lilies for the president’s father’s Kenyan roots.


IMAGE: Obama with the seven foot tall portrait. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The portrait shows Obama in a dark suit with an open-collar shirt, sitting with his arms crossed and resting on his knees.

The reason for the clothing choice, Wiley said, was to show accessibility.

‘The narrative had to do with accessibility, the narrative had to do with a language of openness,’ the artist said, adding, ‘There were no ties, it’s an open collar, it’s a much more relaxed body language — the sense of repose yet at the same time a kind of radical vigilance in the eyes.’

Wiley, Obama pointed out, just like him, was raised by a single mom. He also had an absent African father.

His upbringing shaped his work, much as the president’s journey to connect with his own roots shaped his.

Michelle’s portrait


IMAGE: Baltimore artist Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle’s portrait, is an African-American artist known for her unique style. Her portraits tend to underscore themes of social justice. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016.

She tends to paint black subjects, usually in grayscale in front of a colour-saturated background, in clothes she chooses carefully for each subject.

The gray skin lets Sherald ‘omit’ skin colour from her paintings entirely, she says, separating race from colour.


IMAGE: Amy Sherald at the unveiling of Michelle Obama’s portrait at the Smithsonian. Michelle confessed she ‘was a little overwhelmed, to say the least’, after the portrait was unveiled. ‘Let’s just start by saying “Wow” again,’ she said. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

In the portrait, Michelle reclines against a gray-tinted blue background, wearing a geometric printed gown by Michelle Smith’s Milly label.

The former first lady’s gaze is steady and direct, her hair loose around her face, her pose framed by her bare arms.

The bulk of the dress makes a statement, all but engulfing the body, with little more than the face, arms and hands (with light violet-coloured nail polish) exposed.

The dress almost becomes a protective shell that hides the first lady’s body and some of her femininity.


IMAGE: Barack Obama complimented Amy Sherald for her portrait, saying, ‘I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.’ Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Sherald called the portrait ‘a defining milestone in my life’s work’ because of what the former first lady represents to the country: ‘A human being with integrity, intellect, confidence and compassion.’

‘And the paintings I create aspire to express these attributes: A message of humanity. I like to think they hold the same possibility of being read universally.’

At the unveiling, Michelle said she was thinking of young people, ‘particularly girls and girls of colour who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.’

‘I know what kind of impact that will have on those girls, because I was one of those girls.’

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