Arts & Culture

Representations of Leadership: The Obama Portraits Exhibition at the MFA

Bursting with color, Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama stands out against the white and blue walls of the Museum of Fine Arts. The portrait seats Obama amongst a lush and overgrown vegetal backdrop, featuring African blue lilies, chrysanthemums, and jasmine. The flowers represent Obama’s Kenyan heritage, his hometown of Chicago, and his birthplace, Hawaii. Obama is seated with his elbows resting on his knees and each forearm crossed as he leans forward and gazes attentively at the viewer. He dons a crisp, navy suit and white button-up, but he wears no tie and his collar remains slightly open. 

Next to Wiley’s portrait, Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is displayed. Sherald’s piece places the former first lady in a floor-length, multi-colored gown against a light blue background. Michelle Obama is seated, the skirt of her geometrically patterned gown resting in gentle folds around the base of the painting. The portrait palette is minimalistic, with a light blue hue that fills the background. There are tinges of red, pink, and yellow slivers within the gown. Like many of Sherald’s portraits, Michelle Obama’s complexion is depicted through a grisaille, or gray-scale, technique.

Wiley and Sherald’s portraits contain a sense of natural life and sincerity, presenting themselves as distinct amongst the continuum of Eurocentric presidential portraits. Sophomore Tula Simon said, “I think that both artists did a really great job of not just capturing the former president and first lady’s likeness but also… cultivating the atmosphere in their pieces that reflected the change that the Obamas sought to foster in our country.” Simon continued, “I think that both portraits were truly iconic and, in my opinion, embodied the changing nature of power that the Obamas represent.”

When Wiley’s and Sherald’s portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama were revealed to the public in 2018, the portraits received a level of public attention and media coverage unmatched by former Presidential portraits. In addition to the more contemporary methods utilized for the paintings, the attention was also generated from the fact that Wiley and Sherald were the first African American artists to be commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery for Presidential and First Lady portraits. 

Dr. Kelli Morgan, a Professor of the Practice and Director of Curatorial Studies at Tufts as well as a curator at the MFA, spoke of the significance of these portraits. “Barack and Michelle Obama were these powerhouses that really represented… Black brilliance and Black genius and Black accomplishment,” Morgan said. “They represented a type of Black upper middle class or Black, sort of elite, intellectualism that a lot of Americans didn’t think existed… Symbolically, the power of [the] visual symbol that he and Michelle represent… is a huge thing.”

Oftentimes, the act of portrait painting is a process of immortalizing the subjects. By depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as symbols and ideals, Wiley and Sherald take back the instruments of representation and combat the disparaging depictions of Black individuals found in art history. Paintings such as John L. Krimmel’s The Quilting Frolic (1813) and William Sidney Mount’s Farmers Nooning (1836) are instances of representations by white artists that have ridiculed and stereotyped Black subjects. Krimmel depicts the Black subjects with caricatured features, exaggerating their mouths and emptying them of any individuality. Mount, an anti-abolitionist, depicts the reclining Black figure as resting under the sun in contrast to the white workers who sit upright in the shade, playing into racist stereotypes. Magazine illustrations have also participated in contributing to racist tropes, stripping Black subjects of individuality and taking the power of representation out of their hands. Preventing individuals from engaging in self-representation is a critical but often overlooked act of power, and subjects marginalized communities to the stereotypes created by others.

Wiley is an example of a Black artist who has actively combated this legacy of racist Western art. He rose to artistic prominence for his work depicting Black subjects in poses reminiscent of traditional Western portrait paintings. By having his models assume poses traditionally reserved for heroes and leaders in the European canon, Wiley places his Black subjects in positions of power and wealth, challenging traditional representations of Black and Brown young men. Morgan said, “There is a particular essence of Blackness that comes out, and that’s respected, when [Black people] represent one another.” Morgan continued, “It’s putting us back where we always were, giving us space in places that didn’t necessarily acknowledge how central our ancestors were to those moments in history.”

Simultaneously, Wiley remains conscious of his predecessors. President Barack Obama assumes the demeanor and poses found in previous presidential portraits. In addition, the wooden revival armchair that Barack Obama sits in recalls the one present in George Healy’s Abraham Lincoln. While the vegetal motifs and saturated color palette make Wiley’s portrait stand out distinctly from former Presidential portraits, familiar visual cues cement Barack Obama’s legacy within the continuum of the American presidency. “It’s much more approachable,” said freshman Liv Jordan. “He’s sitting at your level and looking at you, and it feels like he’s someone you could talk to.”

However, the arrival of the portraits in Boston also raises questions about the role institutions play in representing Black artists and the role museums have historically played in excluding members of the Black community. The portraits are available for viewing in the MFA until October 30, 2022. Organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the MFA is the seventh and last stop of a tour that has traveled to Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, and San Francisco. All of these cities have significant Black communities but are deeply segregated. Boston in particular is an illuminating example; the MFA is located in the neighborhood of Fenway where only five percent of residents are African American. On average, 23 percent of Boston’s residents are African American. Additionally, the Boston metropolitan area is the nation’s seventh most racially segregated. While Wiley and Sherald’s portraits are triumphs, Professor Morgan noted how museums often try to capitalize off of diversity efforts. “I call it the culture of unbridled ignorance,” Morgan said. “Our museums are also trend followers… They jump on the trend, [that] diversity, equity, inclusion, have become. The exhibition can be a really rich way to heal some past wounds, to really give grace and honor to the communities of, you know, Roxbury and Dorchester and Jamaica Plain. But that’s not actually what they’re using the exhibition to do.” All of the cities included in the portraits’ tour are sites with deep histories of racial injustice, segregation, and disregard for Black artistic accomplishments. Placing the portraits in an institution with a history of racial and economic discrimination undermines the power of these portraits.  

The MFA has experienced increased scrutiny for racial discrimination following an incident where a group of Black middle schoolers was subject to racist remarks during a field trip. In response, the MFA has been undergoing efforts to reevaluate its practices and employee training. The MFA has taken efforts to diversify the artists and artwork that they represent, as shown through their exhibitions “Portraits of Leadership” and “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas.” However, Morgan noted that simply exhibiting Black art is not enough to enact true change within an institution such as the MFA, saying, “Black art by Black artists that is specifically for the Black community is cash for white institutions. There’s a cultural capital… It’s never about what works best for the people that the pieces are created for because the museum has no deep understanding of those cultural, political, socio-political, economic, visual frameworks, and traditions of Black communities because those are not the frameworks that inform the institution.”

The artistic depictions of leaders shape the public’s understanding of who these people are and what they stand for. Simultaneously, the way these representations are shared with the public impacts how viewers engage with the personas and legacies of their leaders. “I think it goes without saying that America’s leadership, for a very long time, has been dominated by elite white men,” Simon said. “I think the portrait of former President Obama… is a particularly dynamic take [that challenges] the visual rhetoric of power in our country that, for so long, has looked exactly the same.” To some, Wiley and Sherald’s portraits are a huge triumph for the representation of Black figures. At the same time, audiences should be aware of the spaces that these artworks occupy. If art museums truly want to serve as cultural, rather than just white, institutions, hanging up a canvas is not enough.