On the morning of Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., unveiled the Obama Official Portraits. The former president’s was commissioned from Kehinde Wiley; the first lady’s from Amy Sherald. A large crowd attended the Unveiling. Friends of the Obamas and Friends of the Artists ate breakfast at the west end of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. News cameras occupied a platform in the middle. Quadrants of color-coded seats sorted Gallery staff (yellow) and Media (blue) from Friends (red). Only the first couple of rows were assigned. The two portraits sat on a stage in front of a large blue curtain, wearing black veils that led one viewer to imagine what David Hammons might have done with the commission.
We had been primed for the attendance of such Presidential Friends as the Tom Hankses and the Spielberg-Capshaws, Alicia Keys, and Swizz Beatz. A political gossip reporter seated near me said she spotted “Axelrod and Earnest” (former White House staffers David and Josh, respectively) and Michelle Obama’s eyebrow person. In return, I pointed out museum heads Thelma Golden and Franklin Sirmans (of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, respectively), and the Ford Foundation’s president, Darren Walker. Suddenly she shouted at a couple approaching, “Attorney General Holder! Attorney General Holder! I hear you’re running for president!” When asked if that really worked, she said, “Hey, I got my quote.”
The music of Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Nico & Vinz, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and, dishearteningly, U2, filled the courtyard. The Obamas had prepared a Spotify playlist for the event. The pause in between songs was just long enough to make everyone think this is it, it’s starting, and they would get very quiet. Then another song would play.
Joe Biden came in solo. His wife, we would learn, was stuck in traffic. An announcer’s voice reminded everyone to silence their cellphones, “But we would be delighted for you to share the story by using hashtag NPG.” Laughter erupted, presumably caused by a selfie among the Friends on the distant front row, and the voice responded, “That hashtag again is NPG.” (In fact, it was not. The Unveiling’s suggested hashtag was #MyNPG. #NPG is the hashtag of Prince’s backup band, the New Power Generation.)
Then the NPG’s director, Kim Sajet, and Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton appeared from behind the curtain, followed by artists Sherald and Wiley, and then Michelle and Barack Obama. After brief statements explaining how the museum had commissioned the portraits but the Obamas had chosen the artists, and how we need the arts so much in our everyday lives, the Unveilings were underway. Flanking their portrait, the former first lady and Sherald revealed the artwork before a thousand phone cams and a livestream.
Michelle Obama noted that she is the first person in her family to sit for a portrait. She thanked her ancestors and family, including her mother. She thanked their advisers, White House curator Bill Allman, Golden, and designer Michael Smith. She apologized to all the artists they considered, for putting them through a daunting selection process that included 2-on-1 interviews in the Oval Office. She praised Sherald, who “was fly and poised and hip and cool,” and who won her over with focused resolve. “She turned to me and said, ‘I really hope that you and I can work together.’ ” That’s when “Barack kind of faded into the woodwork,” she recounted, and she and Sherald quickly bonded with “that kind of sista-girl connection” and trust a successful portrait requires. She was very aware that little girls, particularly little girls of color, would one day visit this great museum and see someone who looks like them.
Sherald thanked her subject and explained the way she transforms her portraits of American people from individual subjects into archetypes. The dress that dominates the painting is from Michelle Smith’s label Milly. (Spring 2017, in fact, which hit the runway in September 2016, which locates this portrait commission at quite a fulcrum of history for the Republic.) The dress, Sherald said, evoked Mondrian’s paintings, and the abstract geometric quilts of Gee’s Bend. It also echoes, she did not add, a 2012 painting she did of a woman in a full-length, quilt-paneled skirt, Equilibrium, which is owned by the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal.
Then President Obama and Wiley went to unveil their portrait. It is seven feet tall and required some tugging. The shroud bunched up at the base, obscuring the recommended hashtag. They posed, hammed, and hugged before Obama spoke: “Look at that. Pretty sharp.” He thanked the Smithsonian officials. He thanked his advisers. He thanked his friends and former staff. “We miss you guys,” he said. “We miss you!” the audience responded, with a roar that jolted a distracted British tabloid journalist near me. “What did they say?” she asked to no one. A seatmate snapped, “They said ‘We miss you,’ what do you think they’d say?”
The former president gave a shoutout to Sherald for capturing his wife’s “hotness.” He gave a shoutout to his mother-in-law for “providing the hotness genes” and for all else she does. Even though he himself is “not fly,” and they lacked that “sista-girl thing,” he said, perhaps he and Wiley connected so well because they were both the sons of American mothers and absent African fathers. Perhaps the yearning such a life foments drove one of them to write a book, and the other to paint. As I marveled at the memory of a reflective president, the European wire service reporter sitting next to me sighed, took off her glasses, and wiped her eyes. Obama told of his concern that Wiley would depict him in his trademark style, “with partridges and scepters, and thrones and chifforobes, mounting me on horses.” Wiley elevates people in our world who’d otherwise be invisible, he said, like those who serve the food or keep this museum clean. His work, Obama said, like our democracy, “is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up.”
A sitting president is always the last speaker on the program, no one follows him. Here the former president invited Wiley to speak. “How do you explain that a lot of that is just simply not true?” Wiley began. His work, his life, so much of it happens by chance. His original subjects were often men he’d meet on the street. How could this series of chances bring him to this extraordinary point? He mentioned his adrenaline rush, explained the symbolic system of flowers in the portrait’s verdure, and sat down. Secretary Skorton came to the podium, but after a brief pulse of activity on the stage, Wiley returned. The former first lady had reminded him, he said, that he was not finished, and that he needed to thank his mother. His mother, Freddie Mae Wiley, of South Central, he said through tears, who somehow managed to find money for paint for her little boy who dreamed of being an artist in a great museum.
Standing in front of the paintings for their photo-opp, an Italian reporter asked me my beat. “Contemporary art? The problem with contemporary art is that they haven’t made anything good since Michelangelo.” Michelangelo’s great, I replied, but they’re all owned by the Queen or the Pope. I guess the rest of us are just doing the best we can.
These official portraits are not destined for the White House; that’s a different gig. Wiley’s portrait of President Obama was moved later in the day to the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent exhibition of presidential portraits, where it went on view today. As it is now installed, the former president’s troubled, thoughtful gaze is fixed on a large photograph of labor leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph picketing the 1948 Republican Convention with a sign that reads, “If we must die let us die as free men, not Jim Crow slaves.” Michelle Obama’s portrait, for its part, is now hanging in a hallway for several months, after which its fate is unclear.