Obama portraits unveiled at ceremony in Washington

Published: 13 February 2018 Image credit: Reuters

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Portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have been unveiled in an historic ceremony at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.

“How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” Mr Obama said as the curtain was pulled off the large-scale painting, depicting the former president sitting in a contemplative pose against a backdrop of vibrant plants and florals.

Mr Obama then paid tribute to artist Kehinde Wiley for producing the artwork, saying working together was “a great joy”.

He then joked that he had tried to negotiate “less grey hair” and “smaller ears” to be worked into his painted likeness.

Mr Obama also paid tribute to Amy Sherald, the Baltimore-based artist, who painted Mrs Obama’s portrait. He thanked her for “so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and… hotness of the woman I love.”

Ms Sherald’s portrait shows the former first lady, dressed in a couture gown made up of contrasting geometric patterns of white, black and grey, with small bursts of colour. She sits against a soft, pale blue background, and gazes out at the viewer.

The paintings both complement and contrast each other, with Mr Kehinde famous for using bright, vivid colours, while Ms Sherald is known for her use of pastels and greyscale.

Mr Kehinde said he used ivy and bright flowers, native to areas such as Illinois, Kenya and Hawaii (all places significant to the former president) as symbols representing Mr Obama’s “path on Earth”.

Ms Sherald said she used grey scale and pastels to capture Mrs Obama’s “quiet and strong presence”.

The introduction of a former president and first lady’s likeness into the National Portrait Gallery is a long-running tradition and not normally a momentous event, but the Obamas’ portraits represent the only two portraits of African Americans, painted by African American artists, to feature in the gallery’s permanent “America’s Presidents” and “First Ladies” collections, making the occasion historic.

Its significance was not lost on Mrs Obama.

“Thinking about all of the 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 this wall of this great American institution. I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls,” she said in a speech, before thanking and congratulating Ms Sherald for her work.

The day chosen for the unveiling is also the anniversary of former president Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. Interviews with the artists were held in front of Lincoln’s portrait, in a symbolic nod to the country’s past and Lincoln’s involvement in the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Mr Obama’s image will hang alongside those of other former presidents, some of whom themselves were slave-owners. In closing their speeches, both Mrs Obama and Mr Obama commented on the historical significance of the day, what lay behind and what lies ahead for their country.

“I think wow, wow. What an incredible journey we are on together in this country. We have come so far. Yes, as we see today, we have a lot of work to do, but we have every reason to be hopeful and proud,” Mrs Obama said.

Mr Obama said that the portraits didn’t “simply celebrate the high and the mighty, and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up.”

Mr Obama finished his speech by saying he was “in awe” of the artist and their talents.

“We are both very grateful to have been the subject of their attention.”

The portraits are on permanent display as part of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s “America’s Presidents” and “First Ladies” collections.