6 Black Artists Championed by the Obamas

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk along the Colonnade of the White House, Sept. 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Last week, former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled their official portraits for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The contemporary aesthetic of both paintings represents a leap forward for presidential portraiture, which is typically more traditional. Only a few past Presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, have opted for something more excited than a dark suit against a regal background.

Today we unveiled the portraits of President @barackobama and Mrs. @michelleobama at our @smithsoniannpg. The museum collects multiple images of the presidents and first ladies but also commissions a set of portraits at the end of each presidency. Kehinde Wiley, a New York-based artist, references President @barackobama’s life in the decorative background with chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), jasmine (symbolic of Hawaii where the President spent most of his childhood) and African blue lilies (alluding to the President’s late Kenyan father). @kehindewiley is well known for creating vibrant, large-scale paintings of African Americans in poses resembling famous figures in the history of Western art. Amy Sherald, chosen to paint Mrs. @michelleobama, is a Baltimore-based artist known for her stylized, archetypal portrayals of African Americans. In this oil-on-linen painting, @asherald depicts the former First Lady as both confident and approachable in a dress by Michelle Smith’s label Milly. Both portraits will be on view starting Feb. 13—his permanently in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition and hers in the museum’s “Recent Acquisitions” corridor through early November 2018. #myNPG #ObamaPortraits

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The moment is also significant because the Obamas were the first to select African American artists to represent them in their official portraits. President Obama chose Kehinde Wiley, a museum darling known for daring, contemporary portraits of black men and women that hearken back to the style of the Old Masters.

Michelle Obama’s choice of portrait artist demonstrates her penchant for supporting the careers of emerging artists and designers. Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald is less well-known than Wiley, but her portraits reflect the ongoing interaction between concepts of race and beauty in America.

As these the official portraits are digested by the American public, they are contextualized by the other aesthetic choices made by the Obamas.

Barack Obama came into office after a historic run for President in 2008. His campaign materials included the iconic “Hope” poster by street artist Shepard Fairey, which was distributed by Fairey with support from Obama’s team and quickly went viral on social media. The image has a distinctly current and urban feel, fitting for a candidate who was supported by rap artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West.

Shepard Fairey, “Hope,” silkscreen, 2008. Sold for €772.22 via Artcurial (March 2013).

Michelle Obama, too, has left her mark on the cultural zeitgeist of this generation. Her fashion choices while on the campaign trail and in the White House were diverse, democratic, and fashion-forward. She collaborated with accessible, well-known brands and high-end designers alike. Some of her most iconic outfits include items from J. Crew, Jason Wu, and Tracy Reese.

While the Obamas have varied tastes across the arts, the former President and First Lady pay particular interest to African American artists, especially during significant moments in the public eye.

First Lady Michelle Obama talks with Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden during a tour of the Studio Museum in Harlem, in New York, N.Y., Sept. 21, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The Obamas were an integral part of modernizing the art collection at the White House. During President George W. Bush’s second term in office, his wife Laura acquired a Jacob Lawrence painting that hung in the White House Green Room. Building on that, the Obamas incorporated many more African American artists into the White House’s art collection. Michelle Obama acquired an abstract work by Alma Thomas, the first African American woman represented in the permanent collection of the White House.

Like their official portraits, the art the Obamas selected for their living spaces in the White House reveal a vested interest in engaging with modern and contemporary artists, in particular artists of color. As we take time during Black History Month to learn about the lives and achievements of significant African Americans, we take a closer look at some of the Black artists favored by the former President and First Lady.

Kehinde Wiley

Left: Kehinde Wiley, “Obama (Study),” oil wash on paper. Sold for $11,250 via Sotheby’s (June 2015); Right: Kehinde Wiley, “Fall,” oil on canvas, 2009. Sold for $104,500 via Phillips (March 2011).

Kehinde Wiley’s portraits combine modern and traditional elements to create a new form of representation. Wiley’s paintings incorporate references from the Old Masters, Islamic architecture, and hip hop culture to make a statement about power dynamics. He is primarily known for paintings of black men, but has exhibited works with female subjects in the past few years. Of the new portrait of President Obama Wiley said, “The narrative had to do with accessibility, a language of openness… It’s an open collar, a much more relaxed body language. The sense of repose, yet at the same time a type of radical vigilance in the eyes. Painting of this type is designed to tell twin narratives.”

Amy Sherald

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Amy Sherald, who was selected by Michelle Obama to paint her official portrait, also uses portraiture to address social issues surrounding identity politics; however, where Wiley works in a type of hyperrealism, Sherald develops her subjects into symbols of more abstract concepts. She paints the skin tones of African Americans in grayscale as a way of diminishing the connection between color and race. “It was such an honor to paint [Michelle Obama],” said Sherald. “She gave this country so much with her presence, just by being who she was. She gave a lot of us permission to be better and to want to do better. She’s a quiet, strong presence and that’s what I wanted to represent in that painting.”

William H. Johnson

William Johnson, “On a John Brown Flight,” color pochoir and silkscreen on paper, circa 1942-45. Sold for $81,250 via Swann Auction Galleries (February 2014).

The Obamas selected work by William H. Johnson to display at the White House during the administration’s eight years in office. Johnson was born in the Deep South but traveled extensively, including Europe and North Africa. His oeuvre was equally eclectic, exploring oil paintings, watercolors, pen-and-ink sketches, prints, and ceramics in various styles. Toward the end of his active period, Johnson began to use a more selective, flat color palette and focused on African American family life and historical subject matter. William Johnson is recognized as one of the most important African American artists of the 20th century.

Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas, “Genesis,” watercolor on paper, 1966. Sold for $65,000 via Swann Auction Galleries (October 2016).

Alma Thomas spent 35 years as an art teacher in Washington, D.C. after graduating from Howard as the university’s first fine arts graduate. When she retired from teaching, she developed her signature abstract style. Thomas was 75 when she first exhibited the works for which she is known. Though she started late, she left behind a remarkable legacy: Alma Thomas was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Michelle Obama, who selected many abstract works for the White House, hung her painting “Resurrection” in the Old Family Dining Room.

Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon, “Prologue Series #1,” oil on canvas. Sold for $450,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2017).

Contemporary conceptual artist Glenn Ligon explores race, sexuality, and identity in his works. Ligon uses in a variety of media, including painting, installation, and film. He often incorporates text in his works; in the past, Ligon has borrowed language from Richard Pryor, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Zora Neale Hurston for projects that grapple with the concept of race in America. The piece President Obama selected, “Black Like Me No. 2,” uses text from John Howard Griffin’s 1961 memoir Black Like Me.

In addition to his work being selected for display at the Obama White House, Ligon is represented in the collections of many significant public institutions including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Theaster Gates

Left: Theaster Gates, “Throne, Toward the Close of Day,” acrylic, wood and metal. Sold for $50,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2015); Right: Theaster Gates, “Night Stand for Soul Sister,” wood, tar, and paper, 2013. Sold for $50,000 via Christie’s (March 2014).

Theaster Gates was born and lives in Chicago, Illinois. His work deals with issues of urban planning, specifically revitalizing poor neighborhoods through art and urban planning initiatives. Gates is the director of the Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit that provides affordable spaces for communities with few arts resources. The foundation operates the Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side of Chicago, which Obama visited in 2016. Gates serves on the design committee for Obama’s presidential library, and he was also a speaker at the Obama Foundation’s two-day leadership summit in Chicago in October 2017.


Smithsonian American Art Museum
National Museum of Women in the Arts
The Obamas Select Art for the White House | TIME
How A Work Of Art Makes It Onto The Wall Of The White House | NPR