Behind The Obama Portraits: Artists Put Their Own Spin On A Presidential Tradition Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald both typically paint vivid canvases of ordinary black subjects. "What we're positing here is a new vision of the possible," Wiley says, "one which is inclusive."
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Behind The Obama Portraits: Artists Put Their Own Spin On A Presidential Tradition

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Behind The Obama Portraits: Artists Put Their Own Spin On A Presidential Tradition

Behind The Obama Portraits: Artists Put Their Own Spin On A Presidential Tradition

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've been talking with the artist who painted President Obama's official portrait. They were together on stage for the unveiling yesterday at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Obama was the one in the conservative suit. Artist Kehinde Wiley was the man in the dark blazer with broad white stripes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: He and I make different sartorial decisions.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: But the former president said they relate to each other's stories. A little after 10:00 on Monday morning, Wiley stood with Obama on stage for the big reveal. Let's do this with a little golf announcer voice.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Obama looks much as he always did. Gestures to the artist to make sure he's in the right place. The frame is much taller than both men. Together, they're pulling down the black cloth. It's a little stuck.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Awkward. They're working it around.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: And there it is. The former president steps back to get a look - the president, seated forward on a chair, arms crossed, with a spectacular, leafy green background that is characteristic of much of Wiley's work. The two men now are embracing in front of that portrait and having another look.

In the painting, President Obama is surrounded by flowers. Jasmine to represent Hawaii, his birthplace, African blue lilies for Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, the birthplace of his political career.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: The portrait, plus another, of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, are now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. The presidential portrait will hang in a section of the museum dedicated to such portraits. Lincoln, in his portrait, is sitting forward on his chair, too. George Washington is gesturing as if to tell you to sit down. The other George W. - Bush - is relaxed, open-collared, on a couch.

KIM SAJET: We tell the story of America by those who have been in the White House. This is often how Americans tell time.

INSKEEP: We strolled through that part of the gallery with the museum director Kim Sajet. Her institution commissioned this new painting to mark a time that, as the Obamas took the stage with it, felt both very near and very far away. As we walked the gallery, we turned and there was the painter, Kehinde Wiley. He was next to Elaine de Kooning's expressionist rendering of John F. Kennedy. We talked about the long tradition of painting presidents.

KEHINDE WILEY: It's one of those things that can in a sense remain stodgy unless you reinvigorate it with a sense of urgency.

SAJET: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Did you consider the stodgy approach at any time?

WILEY: I did. In fact, what I did was I went through art history books with the president, and we went through it almost as a type of menu, looking at the features of body language, the features of backdrop.

INSKEEP: Normally you might see a powerful man in his office, maybe with his hand on some books or overlooking a dramatic scene.

WILEY: Very quickly we arrived at the notion that we should try to clear the table. Where do we start at ground level to create something that hasn't been seen before?

INSKEEP: To talk about how Wiley addressed that challenge, we took a seat on a museum bench. The artist is just over 40 years old. In choosing him, Obama seemed drawn to the artist's personal story. Like the president, Wiley is the son of an American mother and a mostly absent African father.

WILEY: My father was the first of his family to leave Nigeria and go to Los Angeles, Calif., to study at UCLA, where he met my mom. Shortly before my birth, he returns to Nigeria and I'm raised by my mother in South Central Los Angeles, one of six kids.

INSKEEP: His mother didn't have much money but sent him to art class, and he grew up to paint portraits of people from modest backgrounds like his own. As an African-American and a gay man, he felt drawn to outsiders. He often picked his subjects by approaching people he met on the street, and he painted them as they were, in their street clothes. But he placed them in heroic settings, on horseback or battling the sea in a small boat. And then this painter of ordinary people was offered a chance to paint the most powerful of people.

When he interviewed you - because he interviewed numerous artists before choosing one - when he interviewed you for this painting, what did he ask?

WILEY: He asked me about my relationship to power and how it is that I would make a portrait that differs from that power dynamic that exists in my work heretofore. It really came down to OK, Kehinde, you do a type of transformation. You take people from everyday life and elevate them to a level of dignity and celebration. What happens when you're painting the head of the free world? What happens in your language as an artist when you're dealing with Barack Obama as the subject for this painting? And I had to respond.

INSKEEP: And?

WILEY: Well, I must've done something right.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

WILEY: We're sitting here today. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I would imagine that I assured him that the replacement acts that go on in terms of recognizing the unrecognized can definitely be seen when recognizing an artist like myself for this role as storytelling.

INSKEEP: Last question 'cause I know you have to go. We're sitting in this gallery. There's is George W. Bush. There's George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton is behind you. And this painting of President Obama, I believe, is going to be right over here. How do you think it fits in with the other portraits of these presidents?

WILEY: I think it fits in and it doesn't fit in. I think that obviously it fits in because it's the presidency. It's the celebration of the 44th position of this hallowed position in American history. And it doesn't fit because we are existing in a very exciting new time in which a black American president has chosen a black American painter to celebrate a continuation of historical precedent and a rip within that fabric. What we're positing here is a new vision of the possible, one which is inclusive, one that says yes to people who happen to look like me, and one that increasingly will catch fire as we go on to inspire young people to imagine new possibilities, new fields of providence.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wiley, thanks very much.

WILEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEO CROKER'S "NO ESCAPE FROM BLISS")

INSKEEP: That's the artist Kehinde Wiley talking after the unveiling of his portrait of President Obama at the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington.

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