Sunday, March 18, 2018

Analyzing America's Least Presidential Portrait

It has been a little over a month since the National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portraits of former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama and while most of the world is captivated by Mrs. Obama's portrait the same cannot be said for her husband's. Like all art, the paintings are open to individual interpretation and critique, but it is obvious the former president' s portrait is a stark contrast to its predecessors. While artist Kehinde Wiley should be proud of his milestone accomplishment it must be acknowledged how damaging his painting is to Obama's legacy.

Wiley's painting of the 45th President is telling how many in the country perceive and continue to view and disrespect its first African American President. Unlike the first 43 presidential portraits Obama's is the first to feature the president in a setting other than the oval office. Instead Obama is painted against a background of flowers. For much of his presidency Obama critics often cited his position towards helping minority groups, especially the LGBTQ community, as grounds for their weak presidency claims. As a celebration of his advocacy Obama was even named the 'First Gay President' by Newsweek in 2012.  For years his masculinity was challenged and Wiley's portrait only continues this notion as he paints the president sitting among flowers. Thanks to the official painting we don't see a powerful and majestic commander in chief but instead a man lost in nature.

The portrait further insults the legacy of the president as the painting presents the president without a tie. With neckties being primarily seen as phallic symbols, the lack of inclusion in the presidents portrait further emphasizes the lack of respect for him and his presidency.

Of course, it is important to note that flowers happen to be a reoccurring theme in many of the Wiley's works. So the flowers being used isn't too surprising. And the portrait was even hailed by an article in The Times; "Whereas Mr. Obama’s predecessors are, to the man, shown expressionless and composed, Mr. Obama sits tensely forward, frowning, elbows on his knees, arms crossed, as if listening hard.” Yes, as if listening to a very uninteresting subject. While Obama's portrait is indeed beautiful and original, it fails to capture the true regal essence that comes with being the leader of the "free world" and while Wiley's painting would be a beautiful personal portrait to hang in the Obama's study, as a presidential portrait it misses the mark.