On Monday, the country witnessed another historic first for the Obama presidency—portraits. The unveiling of the official portraits of our former president, Barack Obama, and former first lady, Michelle Obama, marked the first time a black presidential couple will live in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. And it’s also the first time two black artists—Kehinde Wiley for the president and Amy Sherald for the first lady—were commissioned to paint the official portraits of a president and first lady for the gallery.
Most years, the presidential portrait unveiling goes by without much notice, but not this time. The Internet was ablaze with analysis, commentary, excitement and, of course, criticism. To parse the meaning behind this moment and the art itself, The Nation spoke with Rujeko Hockley, an assistant curator at The Whitney who knows both of the artists personally. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
The Nation: It’s not like presidential portraits are a new thing. Tell me about why these portraits have garnered such a response.
You’re right, what happened today is standard—every president and first lady has had a portrait done. Two, in fact: There’s also one that goes in the White House, which will be in the more traditional portraiture genre. So this happens for every administration. But I think because of who the Obamas are, because of their singular, unprecedented role in American history and because of the complementary singular, unprecedented nature of the artists they chose, this is a big deal. And there was also this familial “we made it!” part of the unveiling, which accompanies a lot of black achievement, of people of color achievement, just because they are the first. It’s crazy that it’s 2018 and we’ve had 44 presidents and however many first ladies and there are plenty of artists [of color] who could have done it in the past—it’s not like suddenly these people exist, these people have existed in all the earlier generations of people—but we finally got our chance. And that’s why we’re hype, if you will.
What does it mean that the Obamas chose Wiley and Sherald?
Well, you dont commission something from a specific person who has a very long track record of working in a specific way and then tell them to do something totally different than what they do. If you wanted something different you’d ask for someone different. I read somewhere that they reviewed dozens of artist portfolios and so I think this was a purposeful choice they made. I can’t, obviously, intuit their personal reasons, but it’s clear they wanted the style of these artists, otherwise they would have chosen different artists. Consequently, it makes sense that the portraits we have are very emblematic of both artists’ styles.
It’s kind of amazing to think that [these portraits] will be living next to the other portraits of all of the other presidents and first ladies—the comparison is stark when you look at the past artists. I think it’s amazing that they’re going to live in that context, but you could take them both out of the National Portrait Gallery and put them in a retrospective of either of these two artists 50 years from now and they would fit perfectly there too.