The National Portrait Gallery commissioned the first African American artists selected from candidates interviewed by the Obamas at the White House, and it seems they were chosen for ideological reasons more than anything else.
The pictures unveiled on Monday, painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald will hang at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, together with portraits of the presidents Bush and Clinton.
One result shows the 44th president sitting in a suit, without a tie, floating in vegetation and flowers. Both portraits – produced after only two sittings each – have sombre expressions unlike those of the white US presidents before the Obamas.
The America’s presidents section “was previously an exclusive club for white people painted by white people” The Guardian noted. But the former US first couple’s choice of African American artists drew outrage on social media, even from their most loyal supporters.
Critics on social media slammed the rendition of the former first lady, Michelle Obama. Twitter rejected the notion that her portrait even looked anything like Michelle. Most reactions ranged from confused to concern that the badly painted portrait did not live up to the subject.
Most viewers said that Mrs Obama’s portrait looked like someone else, which is quite a problematic issue for a portrait painter. Sherald, incidentally, was also the “first woman” to win the Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
Michelle Obama seemed oblivious to the notion of the substandard rendition and described black artist Sherald “as a woman of extraordinary talent. It’s thrilling to see her get the recognition she deserves.”
Barack Obama’s artist, Kehinde Wiley is a New York-based portraitist best known for his vicious large-scale paintings of African Americans beheading whites. He typically portrays blacks posing as famous figures in western art to make an ideological statement.
Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald
If Donald Trump’s official portrait artist had painted whites holding the decapitated heads of African-American women, there would no doubt have been social chaos.
At the unveiling Obama praised Amy Sherald for capturing his wife’s “hotness” while pointing at an unsmiling “Michelle Obama” with chin resting on an unnaturally long-fingered right hand and an expansive gaudy white patternered dress.
Obama turned to Sherald and said: “Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the… hotness of the woman that I love.”
Sherman paints mostly “black” subjects, but in grayscale in front of a color-saturated background. The gray skin lets Sherald “omit” skin colour from her paintings, she says, “separating race from colour”.
But instead of ignoring race and colour, Michelle Obama focused on the racial colour issue only as the portraits were unveiled: “I’m also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of colour, who … will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.”