(Kehinde Wiley piece pictured above)
Last month, former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama both selected African American artists to paint their official portraits for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. President Obama selected the renowned portrait painter Kehinde Wiley, while Michelle Obama chose to give a big break to portrait artist Amy Sherald.
L.A Native, Kehinde Wiley has been taking the art world by storm for the past decade. The 40-yr-old artist has had his artwork featured in the Fox’s hit show Empire and is slowly but surely becoming a cultural icon. Earlier this year, his work was recognized by the U.S. government and was awarded the prestigious Medal of Arts.
His work focuses on the dynamic of power and race. He recreates classic works of art by placing a Black figure in place of the white figure that was previously at the center of the original piece of art. In an interview with CNN in 2015 he stated,
“What I choose to do is take people who happen to look like me, black and brown people from all over the world, increasingly — and allow them to occupy that field of power.”
In the past, art was known to establish power and celebrate persons of power. Hence, these figures have always been white in American and European Art. Walk into any museum and most of the pieces you will see hanging on the wall are portraits of white men. Kehinde Wiley switches the narrative by placing Black and Brown faces in these positions of power. His work is all about the humanity of the people in his paintings. He takes Black men who are often perceived as menacing, and allows the world to see them in a light that reveals the full humanity that he knows to be true as a Black man himself.
The lesser known Amy Sherald is an up and coming artist in the contemporary scene. The 44-yr-old was born in Columbus, GA and now resides in Baltimore where she received her M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art. The museum’s director, Kim Saiet, stated that Sherald was unknown to the National Portrait Gallery curators when the selection process began. Sherald was first introduced to the contemporary art scene in 2016 when she became the first woman to win the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
Her pieces feature portraits of Blacks in all shapes and sizes, depicted in a gray scale with either a colorful background or colorful clothing to contrast their skin. It is clear from looking at her work that she has an astounding skillfulness with her use of color. There is so much beauty within the simplicity of her work.
This will mark the first time that Black artists were chosen by the Smithsonian to create portraits of a former President and First Lady since they started commissioning portraits in 1994. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherman are opening up a door of opportunity to other Black artists around the world, especially those in the United States. African American Art seems to always get snubbed when it comes to how little is represented in art history textbooks and in museums. With a history of being labeled as art that is “less than” the art of their white counterparts, this is an astounding accomplishment and recognition of two incredible Black portrait artists.
Both portraits will be unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in 2018.