“I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This remark from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign speech on race undoubtedly inspired artist Kehinde Wiley’s painting of the nation’s first African American president. The flora in the background represent those aforementioned three continents, symbolizing that the son of immigrants had achieved the American dream. Obama selecting Wiley, who was renowned in the art world, but hadn’t yet seen mainstream success, was also emblematic of the reality that given the opportunity to achieve, race is not an impediment to one’s potential.
Atlantans can see the paintings of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the Obama Portraits Tour at the High Museum, on view now through March 22. The High is one of only five museums in the U.S. selected to show the portraits, which were commissioned by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
The first time I saw the Obama portraits, I had traveled to Washington, D.C. for my father to meet seven of his first cousins for the first time. His mother, my grandmother, was the seventh of 12 children. She and her siblings were raised on a farm in Fannin, Mississippi. Like many African Americans in the 20th century, once they reached adulthood, they moved North and West to escape racial terrorism in the South. My grandmother made her way to Chicago where she met my grandfather and they had four children. Her younger sister, Zunal, married a soldier, settled in Oklahoma and had seven children. In the absence of social media and cheap travel, these two sisters became part of each other’s memories.
As my newly reunited family stood in line at the National Portrait Gallery to see the Obama portraits, I couldn’t help but think that my grandmother and her sister would have loved to see this day. We are the Obamas and the Obamas are us. In that same 2008 speech on race, the then presidential hopeful told his family’s story.
“I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.“
“It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional of candidates. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.”
The against-all-odds of Obamas success is what makes them the actualization of the American Dream. From farms in Mississippi to Ivy League colleges, anything is possible here. That was certainly the case for Wiley and Amy Sherald, the two African American artists commissioned to paint the former president and first lady, respectively.
Amy Sherald is a daughter of Columbus, Georgia who attended Clark Atlanta University. She found her artistic voice in figurative painting. Most museums in the western world feature paintings of white aristocrats, and Sherald’s artistic mission is to infuse more Black bodies into the art historical narrative. I interviewed Sherald not long after her portrait of Michelle Obama was unveiled.
She said, “Painting black bodies is political. If race wasn’t still such a huge issue, and it always will be, then figurative paintings of black people in museums wouldn’t be such a big deal. Historically, we have been underrepresented, and figurative painting sits in an art historical narrative in a different way than abstraction does. It speaks to the void of black figures in representational work in the art historical narrative.”
Wiley hails from Los Angeles and lives in Brooklyn. His figurative paintings contrast people and their environments. I first encountered his work in 2009 at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia. I was arrested by his photorealistic paintings of everyday Black people posed against ornate, vibrant backgrounds. The piece at the Telfair depicted Black men in throwback jerseys stitching couture gowns.
The Black experience relies so much on placement. Place a Black man in front of a jacquard or floral background and he’s regal. Place my grandmother and her siblings in fur coats in downtown Detroit, and they get to live a human existence. Place a woman from the south side of Chicago or the son of immigrants in the White House and now the world must listen.
The Obamas flung open the doors to diversity and the nation feels the pressure to keep them open. Even with deep racial, political and ideological divides, the push toward inclusion has been threatened, but not thwarted. Now that we’ve had a Black president, we want more Black artists in our museums. Less than 10 percent of artwork in museums is by Black artists, even in the nation’s most diverse cities. The High has worked diligently in recent years to diversify its collection, but it still has a ways to go before the collection is reflective of the city. (The museum has one of Wiley’s paintings in its permanent collection and none by Sherald.)
Further, there’s a sense of urgency for indelible impact. As the first African American president and biracial president, Obama’s symbolic legacy is firmly cemented. However, his legislative one is a bit more precarious. Attempts to repeal and place the Affordable Care Act, dismantle the Marriage Equality Act, reinstitute “don’t ask don’t tell,” and derail voting rights has been the agenda of extreme conservatives. Any residual excitement of chanting “yes we can” has been erased by the reality that just beneath the glossy surface of unity, there were deep divisions. The era of believing we’re all united by common wants, needs and desires is over.
However, endings are also beginnings. The fact that some people have a little because a few people have a lot is the crisis of the 21st century. Now that we know our differences, we can do the hard, but necessary work of seeing and embracing them. My hope is that the doors of diversity and inclusion will remain open for generations to come, so that we can truly become a country where aspirations become reality.