“To call this experience humbling would be an understatement.”
The breathtaking portrait of former President Barack Obama that will hang in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery was unveiled Monday to much applause, but the story behind the portrait is even more moving.
“To call this experience humbling would be an understatement,” Obama said in a message for the Obama Foundation. “That’s because, as a former president, when you choose an artist to describe your likeness, you have the opportunity to shape, quite literally, how someone sees the office of the American presidency.
“And how they might see themselves in that presidency,” Obama added.
Obama explained just why he chose Wiley to paint his likeness for the Smithsonian’s collection of presidential portraits:
Kehinde Wiley and I share some things in common. Both of us had an American mother who raised us, an African father who was absent from our lives, and a search to figure out just where we fit in. I wrote a book about that journey, because I can’t paint. But I suspect a lot of Kehinde’s journey is reflected in his art. I was struck by the way his portraits challenge the way we view power and privilege; the way he endows his subjects, men and women often invisible in everyday life, with a level of dignity that not only makes them visible, but commands our attention.
The arts have always been central to the American experience. They provoke thought, challenge our assumptions, and shape how we define our narrative as a country.
In the past, Wiley found the majority of the subjects of his painting by simply walking down the streets of New York City. Wiley would meet strangers, photograph them, and paint them in the style of classic European paintings of nobility and royalty.
“These works upend the notion that there are worlds where African-Americans belong and worlds where we don’t,” Obama explained. “And that’s something Michelle and I hope we contributed to over the eight years we were so privileged to serve you from the White House.
“They’ll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic.
“And I hope they’ll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.”