The artist who painted former President Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait hailed the former first couple’s choice of black artists for both paintings, calling it a signal that it was now OK for the work of artists who look like them to hang in the halls of the world’s great institutions.
“We can’t not recognize the important significance of representation in art and the decision that this president and first lady have made in choosing artists like ourselves,” said Kehinde Wiley, a Yale University-trained painter who was the first African-American artist to execute an official presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.
“[T]hey’re signaling to the rest of the world that it is OK to occupy skin that happens to look like this … on the great walls of museums in the world,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“In so doing what I see there is true leadership,” Wiley continued. “I see people who have the vision and the intent to not only be great people, but great thought leaders.”
The Obamas’ official portraits were unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on Monday, a rite of passage for former presidents, all of whom have their portraits hanging in the museum.
The portrait of Barack Obama depicts him sitting against a backdrop of green foliage. Wiley’s background choice was also indicative of Obama’s background. Wiley said he was “charting his path on Earth.”
The different flowers woven into the greenery include a chrysanthemum, the official flower of Chicago, and jasmine for Hawaii. There also are some African blue lilies, symbolic of Obama’s heritage.
For her portrait, Michelle Obama chose Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald. Sherald is another African-American artist known for her unique style, and her portraits also tend to underscore themes of social justice.
“It was something I had never even dreamed of,” Sherald said, also speaking on “Amanpour” on Monday. “To find myself here is really just unbelievable. On one hand, I feel like I know why I was chosen, on other hand it’s just such a … I can’t even put it into words yet.”
CNN’s Kate Bennett contributed to this report.