Breaking Tradition

Breaking Tradition is a blog post by Ana Brdar on how the Obama portraits broke with tradition.

On February 12th, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, two works of art that have since provoked a strong reaction among art critics, celebrities, political pundits, as well as the general public.

Prior to this event, the most controversial presidential portraits in American history had been ones of John F. Kennedy (for his unusual, markedly pensive pose) and Bill Clinton (which contained visual hints alluding to the Monica Lewinsky scandal).

However, the portraits of the 44th US President and First Lady stand out in an entirely different way. For this occasion, the first couple selected two prominent African-American artists to author the paintings: the Brooklyn-based artist Kehinde Wiley for the former president and Baltimore-based Amy Sherald for the former first lady. Even though Barack Obama’s portrait takes a sharp departure from its decidedly conventional predecessors, it’s very much in line with Wiley’s wider body of work: boldly saturated with colors, natural motifs and striking influences that range from Rococo to traditional West African art.

The 44th President is portrayed sitting on a chair amidst colorful foliage. The luscious backdrop is packed with metaphors – the chrysanthemums represent the official flower of Chicago, jasmine stands for his native Hawaii, while African blue lilies symbolize Kenya, the birthplace of his father. Obama’s pose and facial expression reflect a combination of calmness and resilience, traits commonly seen in characters that occupy Wiley’s paintings.

Obama portrait

Amy Sherald, an up-and-coming name on the American contemporary art scene, depicted the former first lady sitting against a large scale blue-grey backdrop, clad in an exquisite Milly gown adorned with Mondrian-inspired geometric prints. As opposed to her husband’s exuberant rendition, Michelle Obama’s complexion was painted in muted, silvery-gray hues – a signature of Sherald’s works. Her posture and gaze exemplify first lady’s poise and strength.

Michelle Obama

From the moment they were revealed, the portraits triggered a strong response among the public – from sheer amazement, to bafflement, to outright rejection.

Most major publications were delighted at the refreshing change of style and praised the two artists for deciding to honor the former first couple in a way that is visually intriguing, but also true to their African-American heritage.

However, some public observers were less than impressed by the unorthodox renditions of the Obamas. Certain naysayers criticized the departure from traditional style of presidential portraiture, while others were disappointed in the lack of likeness, especially in the case of former first lady’s portrait.

Most important of all, the portraits managed to spark a wider conversation on the nature and scope of official state art. To which point should tradition be respected? Should the artists be expected to stifle their established style for the sake of public palatability? How is an artist supposed to deal with a powerful, influential subject such as the president or the first lady of the United States?

These questions will undoubtedly be explored with future generations of US presidents. However, one thing remains true: the Obama portraits will be remembered as groundbreaking works of arts, ones in which sense of duty didn’t compromise artistic expression. These paintings broke from the norm and became the first of its kind, which is more than representative of the monumental legacy left by Barack and Michelle Obama over the course of their eight-year tenure.