Bloomed: A Review of Obama’s Portraits at the Art Institute of Chicago

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Kehinde Wiley. Barack Obama, 2018. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

The portrait is one of the oldest forms of art, dating back to ancient civilization. It predates photography as a means of depicting someone’s likeness. The art form has traditionally been used to display power, virtue, and importance. The portraits of Obama, currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, are the first stop on a five-city itinerary offered by the National Portrait Gallery.

The legacy the Obamas left exists outside of the Art Institute, but this exhibit cements the importance of not only portraiture, but Chicago influencers as well. The coupling of paintings next to each other echoes more than elegance but the story of their own relationship. The Art Institute is the site of one of their first dates, so as the viewer interacts with these portraits for the first time, they participate in the intimate memory of the days when Barack and Michelle were just acquaintances.

Each portrait is multifaceted, from who is represented to who created them. America’s first African-American couple is represented by the first two African-American artists selected to produce presidential portraits.

Kehinde Wiley, known for placing African Americans in traditional portrait painting, places Barack in a flurry of shrubs. The flowers range from African lilies to chrysanthemums to jasmine, representing an intimate aspect of Obama’s road to becoming the 44th President of the United States. The African lily is found in Kenya, where Obama’s paternal line began, while the jasmine is native to his hometown of Hawaii. Chrysanthemums, colorful in nature, have been recognized as Chicago’s official flower since 1966. In the greenery are the new beginnings of rosebuds, similar to the hallmark of Obama as the first African-American president. Along with the flowers, Barack seems to bloom from the shrub wall as a creation of all behind him. Wiley’s multitude of iconic colors is evident, albeit understated, through the vibrant pigments used in the background (Obama himself is reserved, in a black suit). The flowers aren’t static, however: they appear to be fighting with Barack to see who will be in the foreground of the portrait, revealing a power struggle, a metaphorical understanding of his influence.

The chair he sits on is reminiscent of a Greek Klismos chair, recognized by the curvature of the legs and armrests. The Klismos chair often appears on reliefs from the 5th century. The design was seen as flawed due to the lack of leg support when pressure is applied, echoing the backlash Barack received from citizens regarding his legitimacy as a candidate and as a black man in America. Yet the chairs also resemble the Baroque chairs used by the Danish royal family. It creates a balance between tension and virtue.

With Barack at the forefront of this portrayal, Wiley brings out emotional and intangible aspects of his life that aren’t always easily understood. Wiley takes portraiture to a new realm by forcing the viewer to think deeply about placement and historical notions, ultimately questioning social issues and identity.

Amy Sherald. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018. Oil on linen canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Nearby, Michelle’s groundbreaking Amy Sherald oil painting is on linen, measuring six by five feet. The life-size appearance allows the viewer to look into the eyes of the portrait. Sherald uses her iconic shades of gray to represent Michelle’s skin tone, pushing the viewer’s racial bias away and forcing her to dig deeper into the subject. The simple blue background contrasts with that of Barack’s portrait. The blue background is reminiscent of the American working class, from indigo-dyed quilts to the association of workers’ clothing. Blue talks about Michelle’s work ethic and her own accomplishments outside of her role as African American First Lady. There is a vulnerability in Michelle’s posture that counteracts the stereotype that black women are aggressive, making the painting more personal and intimate.

The lack of brown skin and the dreamy dress brings Michelle out of the roles of first lady, African American woman, and mother, instead, she’s just Michelle. The weak emphasis on facial features makes the viewer wonder who the subject is. She is weak but powerful, she is simply her raw self, a role that is often taken away from a woman in her position. (Caira Moreira-Brown)

Obama’s portraits are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, until August 15.


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