The recent unveiling of First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama’s official portraits for the Smithsonian Institution has caused a seismic rift throughout the world, with supporters and detractors on both side. In particular, Michelle Obama’s piece, created by Amy Sherald and commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, has been dissected and denigrated to such detail that many are even questioning if Michelle had made the right decision in choosing the artist. Make no mistake as there is a reason why she is one of the most educated, refined, and poised First Ladies of all time.
Michelle Obama is a formidable woman of prescience.
As many debate the accuracy of the portrait to her likeness, the lack of color that negates her cocoa brown skin, the sitting pose instead of standing, what is forgotten is what constitutes great art. This notion of greatness has not been lost on the subject, however, and Obama’s thorough knowledge of both the artist behind the portrait and what it will mean in the annals of all time is what sets – and will set – this First Lady apart from both previous and future ones for all time.
What the overwhelming majority of people dissecting Obama’s piece fail to forget is that her portrait will sit next to 40+ white women, which in and of itself is a statement. But Michelle has dared to go one step further and make a subtle statement that is not so subtle – though she sits alone as the sole woman of color, she also stands apart in her understanding of culture, class, and content across the board, regardless of color.
Therein lies dilemma, distinction, and deliverance in a way for Mchelle Obama to go against the grain with the selection of Baltimore native Amy Sherald as the artist to commission her Smithsonian portrait. Sherald, is a contemporary artist that solely paints black subjects, and in ways that are stylized and underscore tradition while simultaneously paying respects to the past and rich tapestry of African-American history. As the first African-American First Lady and first of color, it is imperative that Michelle Obama set her own course of distinction in a long line of women in the White House, while also making it clear that she is well aware of her place in history for now and the future.
The moment Sherald was selected, it should have been apparent that Obama was not going for a straight-forward portrait that bordered on the conservative, and some would say dull. While there is nothing wrong with criticism of the work, there is a such thing as informed and uninformed criticism, which is at the root of Obama’s piece. There are many that are unaware of Sherald’s previous works, which are in the same vein to what was unveiled with First Lady Obama’s portrait. It is not just her subjects that are evocative, but by contrasting them with grayscale skin against a monochrome background and rich colourful clothing, the finished portraits directly challenge racial stereotypes and are viewed by many as instant classic examples of American folk art. Sherald herself described the composition as “the act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self”, meaning her directive was to go against merely a resemblance that was superficial.
Secondly, while Michelle Obama is noted for her physical attributes, specifically the poise and beauty of her face, it is her arms that will hold the gaze of admirers once they walk into the Smithsonian in the coming months. In this portraiture, the sweeping, custom-made dress the First Lady wears is from African-American designer Michelle Smith’s collection, which tells an intricate story throughout the colourful pattern: made from cotton (which evokes the down-home, earth-mother persona Obama is known for), the patchwork quilting denotes the very essence of Americana, and is a nod to the country’s slave era when black women recycled scraps of fabric into abstract, asymmetrical creations. It is a subtle homage to the era, as well as a dramatic and majestic look that complements the First Lady’s compelling messages throughout her career and her status as a living icon. The vibrancy of the halter dress is impossible to ignore, and Michelle Obama’s strength and character show through from the sleeveless design, with the sitting pose highlighting her physical form and inimitable style.
Since all of Sherald’s subjects are black, the gray scale is a nod to previous centuries when African-Americans did not have the luxury of formal portraits. In this portraiture, Obama could easily be the subject of a family photograph from the 19th century. It is steeped in tradition, respectful to her ancestry, and as the first FLOTUS of color, it brilliantly sets herself apart from previous First Ladies with class and distinction. Michelle Obama here is the epitome of a strong BLACK woman, yet the gray scale denotes that her color is not as important as the fact that she is a phenomenal woman.
People are questioning Michell’s vision, when instead, they should be championing her right to HAVE a vision in celebration of the eras before her of her race that had none. One hundred years from now, people will descend upon the Smithsonian Museum and will go through First Ladies 1-43 with the quickness, but at the 44th?
They will stop, they will stare, and they will debate the portraiture of Michelle Obama for hours and its inevitable impact across centuries. Great art is supposed to jolt, to agitate, to stir things up. The Obamas have always done that and this portrait is perfectly in line with their legacy.