Five Things You Should Know About The Obamas’ Portraitists

Back in college, I took an Art History course that I largely enjoyed…except for the mandatory field trip to the area modern art museum. It’s just not my cup of tea; I’ll take Monet over Warhol any day—but, to each their own, I suppose.

I’ll never forget one exhibit—it was a stark white room with nothing but three large bright blue cubes in a row in the center. I looked around, trying to figure out what the point was. I got closer to the cubes to see if I was missing something; some element or message that gave me any inkling of a clue. I got about 2 or 3 feet away from the cube when I heard the shrill voice of a museum official telling me to back away from the cubes.

Alrighty then.

For the record, we’re talking about three cubes painted blue—I wasn’t breathing on the Mona Lisa.

It’s an interesting thing; that is, the value people place on things and what that reveals about those people.

My run-in with the infamous cobalt cubes came to mind this week as Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits were unveiled.

Here’s my short-and-sweet take: I think they’re wildly disrespectful to the dignity of the office. You may like the renderings—and that’s fine. There’s nothing morally wrong with a differing in opinion on what “art” is (unless of course it’s a crucifix submerged in urine; but that’s another story for another day). There are, however, protocol that ought to be followed when memorializing the former leader of the free world out of respect for the high calling of the office. Portraying the president and first lady in an almost cartoonish fashion diminishes the office. Then again, I happen to think they perfectly represent their tenure in D.C., but again, that’s another story for another day.

I’m not here to bemoan the childishness of these paintings per se, tasteless as they may be. I’m here to talk about who these artists are, and what it says about what the Obamas truly believe. Here’s a few things you should know:

  1. Kehinde Wiley—the artist behind Barack Obama’s portrait—has done some “interesting” work. The former president is quoted as gushing over Wiley’s work, saying it challenges “our conventional views of power and privilege.” And of course, the way to challenge conventional views of power and privilege is to paint a black woman standing with the severed head of a white woman, naturally. Yup, one of Wiley’s many works includes the severed head of a white woman. And no, it’s not a misinterpretation; the artist literally said his reimagining of Caravaggio’s Judith killing Holofernes is “sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing.” For the record, Caravaggio’s painting depicts a woman who saves her people by beheading an Assyrian general. I’ll let you interpret Wiley’s version.
  2. Wiley likes to rewrite history by painting white figures, like Napoleon, as black. And for good measure, he throws a few sperm (yes, literally sperm) in the backdrop to “poke fun at the highly charged masculinity and propagation of gendered identity that are involved in the Western tradition of portraiture.”

Let’s review where we’re at so far: whitey=bad; masculinity=bad.

  1. Wiley and his work celebrate the Black Panthers. More than something Beyoncé dresses up as at Super Bowl Halftime performances, the Black Panthers aren’t exactly your friendly neighborhood watchmen. A quick primer per the FBI: “The Black Panther Party (BPP) is a black extremist organization founded in Oakland, California in 1966. It advocated the use of violence and guerilla tactics to overthrow the U.S. government.” Delightful. (And no, I’m not blissfully ignorant of the problematic past of some police in mid-century Los Angeles, but two wrongs don’t make a right. Sorry guys.)
  2. Amy Sherald, the artist who painted the former First Lady’s less-than-traditional rendering, likes to “depict black skin tones in shades of gray—a style the artist adopted to remove the assigned ‘color’ of her subjects, which essentially led Michelle Obama to commission Sherald.” Excuse me, the “assigned” color? Isn’t it the American left that loves to time and again to make color the focal point of the conversation? To drive divisions based on the color of our skin? To subdivide us all into exclusive, intolerant, color-obsessed clubs?
  3. Sherald painted a piece entitled “High Yella Masterpiece: We Ain’t No Cotton Pickin’ Negroes,” which features two black men in white suits holding cotton candy—purportedly a play on the African cotton pickers of days gone by. Painting in order to spark a conversation about history is one thing. Painting in order to pick and pick and pick at a scab that is trying desperately to heal is another. Yes, racism is still alive. It’s alive because we’re sinful, and that’s nothing something we’re even going to get rid of this side of eternity. We also no longer living in Jim Crow south—and yet these artists, not unlike their subjects, love to act like we do. And it’s a disgusting slap in the face to all those who fought for the right to be treated as equal.

The Obamas both made the reason behind their selections very clear: the artists were chosen because of how the artists THINK. Imagine being chosen not for your exceptional, unmatched talent…but because you happen to share the same political and social views. These two artists were chosen because they still view our country as the Obamas do: as an oppressive force in the lives of every black person.

The irony is deafening: the former leader of the free world and his wife chose two artists who fundamentally believe his presidency is impossible.

No seriously: if you buy the artists’ narrative, Barack Obama’s presidency would be impossible; a truly unattainable dream.

Ah yes, what sweet irony.

Mary Ramirez is a full-time writer, creator of (a political commentary blog), and contributor to The Chris Salcedo Show. She can be reached at:; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree

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