Friday, 23 February, 2018

Does Michelle Obama's Official Portrait Gown Have a Hidden Meaning?

Getty Image Getty Image
Andrew Cummings | 14 February, 2018, 19:02

On the morning of Abraham Lincoln's 209th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., unveiled the Obama Official Portraits. It was a odd enough for a presidential portrait that even CNN declared it to be a portrait of "the lonely president".

"This portrait is wonderful, but I really hope there's another version with the tan suit and a cigarette", one user commented. "African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father's birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama himself was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, reference the city where his political career began, and where he met his wife".

To place the pieces in their artistic and political context, I spoke to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture.

Her work focuses on African-American subjects, often painted against brilliantly colored backgrounds, and sometimes holding an object (an oversized coffee cup, or a bunch of balloons) that gives the image a sense of the surreal.

"I was blown away by the boldness of Amy's colors", she said.

On Instagram Michelle proudly posted Sherald's portrait and wrote, "As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment". She said she sees Barack Obama as a handsome man and Michelle Obama as a lovely woman - but that the painting of the former president is set in such a way that it invokes images of Audrey II, the human blood-eating plant from "Little Shop of Horrors".

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"I would have been one of those athletes whose heart just stops and no one knows why", Sherald told the magazine. In one hand, she holds a knife.

The gown also boasted pockets, a feature a sensible Capricorn like Obama would probably find useful. Sherald compared it to "the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee's Bend", which she explains is "a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces". In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture. Portraits can also be entirely conceptual, but the process whereby the National Portrait Gallery commissions presidential portraits is structured to prevent anything too radical emerging from the artist.

Despite the famous subjects, both artists say their portraits are consistent with their established style.

But ultimately, it presents something new. Far from it. Of the scores of paintings the artist has produced, only the two based on the biblical beheading story depict such a scene.

"I used the same cotton poplin and minimal, geometric print to create something more conservative and modern", Smith says of the revised design added a bow sash waist and a slightly fuller skirt.

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