On Monday, the Smithsonian held a special ceremony to unveil the official portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. While the portraits will be placed in the National Portrait Gallery alongside the rest of America's former First Families, these newest entries are a unique divergence from past iterations.
Obama's portrait was done by the acclaimed painter Kehinde Wiley, while Michelle's essence was captured by 44-year-old artist Amy Sherald. Both Wiley and Sherald—who were hand-picked by the Obamas—spoke at the unveiling, and shared their inspirations for their respective pieces. Sherald explained feeling captivated by Mrs. Obama's grace, which translated into her work. "You exist in our minds and in our hearts the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you. The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement."
Wiley echoed Sherald's gratitude and pride. "It seems silly, it's colored paste, it's a hairy stick, you're nudging things into being, but it's not. This is consequential. This is who we, as a society, decide to celebrate. This is our humanity. This is our ability to say, 'I matter.' The ability to be the first African American painter to paint the first African American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming," he said.
The paintings mark a significant departure from the serious and stodgy presidential likenesses that have been captured in the past. Wiley's painting, depicting Obama in a casual sitting position in front of a bed of colorful flowers and shrubs pays a touching homage to the former President's history and background. Sherald's is similar in that it is interpretive and displays the former First Lady in a regal, patchwork gown created by Milly Co-Founder and Creative Director Michelle Smith.
The former First Lady spoke about the significance of the event. "I'm also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who ... will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution," she said. "I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls."
You can watch the entire unveiling ceremony with comments from the artists and former First Family here.