TWO AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS are painting official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The artists were selected by the Obamas. New York-based Kehinde Wiley is painting the president and Baltimore artist Amy Sherald will depict the first lady. The Portrait Gallery commissioned the portraits which are expected to be unveiled in early 2018 and will enter the museum’s permanent collection.
“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former President and First Lady. Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement.
THE PRACTICES OF BOTH ARTISTS are rooted in portraiture. Each has a distinct, recognizable style.
Wiley built his practice making portraits of young black men (and now, on occasion, black women) he spots on city streets. His portraits recast the subjects in scenes from old European master paintings with elaborately patterned background. Over the years, he has expanded his vision, pursuing projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Middle East for a portrait series called The World Stage. In 2015, during the Obama Administration, Wiley was honored by the U.S. Department of State with a Medal of Arts award for his commitment to the Art in Embassies program.
After earning his MFA at Yale University, Wiley was a 2002 artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. From there, his practice blossomed. “A New Republic,” his 10-year retrospective, was organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 2015.
For a recent exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, Wiley presented portraits of his fellow contemporary artists, including Glenn Ligon. During the Obamas eight years in the White House they were enthusiastic supporters of the arts and selected a number of contemporary works for display in their private quarters, including a painting by Ligon.
Wiley already has a painting in the Portrait Gallery collection, a 2005 portrait of LL Cool J. Read more