A Nigerian portrait painter, who is based in New York City, Kehinde Wiley, has painted the official portrait of Barack Obama, former President of the United States of America. Handling Michelle Obama’s portrait was Amy Sherald, a Baltimore-based artist. As announced in October 2017, they are the first African-Americans commissioned to paint official portraits of the nation’s first couple.
From Tuesday, 13 February, the two artists’ works have been on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., which, asides from the White House, is home to the only complete collection of presidential portraits. It houses more than 1,600 works.
“I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears – struck out on that as well,” Obama joked during the unveiling.
“Maybe the one [place] where there are some concessions … his initial impulse may be to elevate me … mounting me on horses … and I had to explain I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon.”
Kehinde Wiley is most famous for his vivid depictions and highly naturalistic paintings of people of colour. In 1977, he was born in Los Angeles to a Yoruba father and an African-American mother. His mom supported his interest in art and at the age of 12, he spent some time at an art school in Russia. Though he did not grow up with his father, at the age of 20, he travelled to Nigeria to explore his roots and meet him.
Kehinde noted that he was “humbled” by the invitation to paint President Obama, and explained that the backdrop includes flowers from Chicago, Kenya and Hawaii to reflect the president’s background.
The Gallery has been commissioning American Presidents’ portraits since the administration of President George H.W. Bush. And in 2006, under President Bill Clinton, it started to include portraits of the First Lady.