What the Obama Portrait Asks Us to Remember

            The Obama official portrait is unlike any to come before it. There is a range of what is acceptable and US presidents have been somewhat creative in the past. Even George W. Bush’s portrait represents somewhat of a deviation from the standard black suit stern faced portraits which occupy most of the national gallery. Bush is shown sitting, jacketless, with an askew smile on a couch in the Oval Office. John F. Kennedy is remembered, in the portrait which is perhaps the most similar to Obama’s, in an abstract green-yellow-scale Elaine de Kooning. The Obama portrait, however represents a starkly different take on portrait painting in general.

            Kehinde Wiley blends techniques of old world portrait painting with modern images of hip hop and pop culture in order to create a sort of fusion style. His subjects are often set against a floral backdrop similar to the one used in the portrait of Barack Obama. The art is beautiful and the subjects stand out vividly against their at times almost neon vivid backgrounds. This use of the background is perhaps Wiley’s most significant innovation. While the backgrounds of portraits are typically muted and filled with vague and almost stock images, Wiley instead turns up the radiance on this aspect and creates a portrait which truly comes to life.

            Beautiful people against a vibrant, almost overwhelming background. Wiley has stated in the past that he depicts his subjects heroically, at times in order to evoke the ideas of empowerment. Barack Obama is peacefully and pensively seated in a brown armchair against a green floral wall peppered with colorful chrysanthemums. He is jacketed, albeit tieless, and the slightest smirk creeps across his face. His hands are large and draped over his elbow and knee respectively, feet planted firmly on the ground.

Nothing about this portrait is unintentional, and like the many that have come before him it too is both art and propaganda. With an image like this one, Barack Obama urges you to remember him in certain way. He urges us as a society to remember a calm, subtly but certainly confident leader. He insists we remember that he was willing to be playful and would unbutton his collar, but he was always in control as his powerful hands lay across his own arms and legs. The problem then, is that this image is as hypocritical as it is celebratory. The portrait of Barack Obama which asks us a to remember a peaceful and confident leader also asks us to forget a leader who pioneered the use of technology for anonymous murder of civilians. It is oddly reminiscent of his Nobel Peace Prize, which he was oxymoronically awarded in 2009.

            Despite any presidential demerits or accomplishments, what this image accomplishes more than anything else is to seal Obama in our memories as primarily a figure of pop culture. This image can be seen as a continuation of a tradition of pop-imagery that began with his iconic “Hope” poster during his 2008 campaign, which became reflective of his movement and was reprinted in countless places. In a way, Barack Obama was the United States’ first celebrity president, and his choice of his official depiction reflects that role back onto him. He will be remembered amongst the celebrities of his era, as playful and outgoing, he will be thought of as confident. He will forever in our minds sit against a wall of flowers, quietly proud of his work. It will be up to us to remember that portraits don’t make men, no more than memories do. Actions will always be the only force capable of that, and you can’t paint chrysanthemums over those.


Jack Madock