I tuned in at work on a livestream for about 15 minutes right before Barack Obama’s portrait was to be revealed. I missed the unveiling of Michelle Obama’s, well, to be nice, portrait.
I remember cheering that Kehinde Wiley had been commissioned to do Obama’s portrait and like most, I went to see his work and automatically knew that it was going to be something completely unconventional. That both the Obama’s contracted a black artist seemed to fit their profile of silently tapping into the source of black American culture.
Upon first blush seeing Barack’s portrait reveal, the word gaudy came into mind. Thoughts such as too colorful and over the top began coming through as well. It was one of those “Well, if Barack likes it, that’s all that matters” moments.
As the cameras panned out, I saw Michelle’s portrait. Yikes. The flat, almost gray-scale colors lacked the pop and vibrancy I had come to associate with the former First Lady.
Black Twitter, to no one’s shock, began taking sides. The creatives on my timeline—the poets, the writers, the visual artists, the photographers, the black Literati—all rushed to the defense of Wiley and the artist who depicted Michelle, Amy Sherald. One tweet did take the time to show the work of Sherald and it’s more than clear that Michelle’s likeness is in keeping with the style of Sherald’s work.
While both Wiley and Sherald maintained their personal artistic integrity in their interpretations of the Obamas, it still doesn’t preclude the portraits from being ugly. And no, I don’t mean ugly in a metaphorical way, but in the way of basic aesthetics: the portraits just aren’t pleasing to my sensibilities.
For starters, Michelle is almost unrecognizable. Someone commented on my Facebook page that she thought it was Kerry Washington. CNN’s Jeanne Moos took the photo and did quick street interviews and it was clear that no one recognized her face. One person interviewed said “I recognized those arms though,” and guessed correctly who it was.
On a deeper level, it appears that Wiley’s interpretation of Barack is imaginative of the change most blacks hoped for. Instead, the most we got was a tan suit. Something slightly out of the ordinary, a change of pace, a minor blip in the regular routine, but nothing monumental or life-changing. Wiley’s portrait memorializes a man whose performance of blackness resounded loud as the rolling sea, yet he was also representative of an administration that by all indications will view him conventional president. He played by the rules, as a good Negro ought. The portrait plays discordant notes with who Obama was a president versus who black Americans wanted him to be.
Black America, the American Negro, the Afro-American wanted Barack Obama to be the epitome of so much. We compromised some of our values around intellectual debates and general logic in order to give him a pass. We exiled voices such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley when they dared ask that we hold elected officials accountable. We failed to miss the irony that “Black Lives Matter” was an awareness campaign started under the first black president. We hung our hopes on him, and slightly more than one year into the Error of Trump, all we have to show for it is an overly saturated portrait that looks like Barack sat a chair on the ivy wall of Wrigley Field.
Perhaps if Wiley painted Michelle and Sherald imaged Barack, the characterizations would have made more sense to me.
In truth, Barack in the tan suit makes the most sense. Is it more conservative? Of course it is! But that’s who he was. That’s who we elected. When Barack discarded his pastor Jeremiah Wright for the political expediency, that was him putting on the tan suit. When Barack held a beer summit, that was him donning a tan suit. When he made sure Wall Street and Main Street got bailouts during the Great Recession, but so many of the Martin Luther King Streets saw nothing tangible, that was him wearing a tan suit. We elected a Negro who would look good in a tan suit, not a president worthy of being illustrated live in living color.
We, the American public, I’m sure will come to appreciate these portraits. We will prize them. We will own them. Black Americans, I’m sure will go through extraordinary lengths to make some apocryphal, daresay even pseudepigraphical meaning out of these portraits. In short, we’ll all just get used to them both. But in my head, much like The Shade Room’s photo shop of Barack wearing a beard, his official portrait will always be him in a tan suit fitted for American’s first black president.