While in office, the Obamas regularly used the opportunity to celebrate distinctive elements of African American culture, especially music and art. Besides presiding over numerous Kennedy Center Honors awards shows celebrating the life works of Black cultural icons like Al Green, Carmen de Lavallade, Wayne Shorter, Lionel Richie, LL Cool J, Mavis Staples, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Oprah Winfrey, Bill T. Jones, etc., the Obamas often kept the White House rocking with concerts by Black musicians. The last, biggest and maybe the best was the “Love and Happiness: An Obama Celebration,” from 2016, which is still available for viewing on YouTube. It will brighten your day.
As a last gesture of support to the evolution of Black cultural contributions, the Obamas chose two African American painters to do their portraits that would hang in the Smithsonian’s Historical National Portraits Gallery in Washington, D.C. as a legacy to the Obama presidency, one a very well known artist—Kehinde Wiley, and one up-and-coming artist for Mrs. Obama, Amy Sherald. Both finished portraits were far from the usual. The one for Mr. Obama, presented him seated in a very thoughtful, pondering pose surrounded by a garden of flowers representing aspects of his life— blue lillies from Kenya, jasmine from Hawaii, and chrysanthemums from Chicago. The portrait is deep in double entendre and symbolism. Mr. Obama is dignified and engaged, but the pose is very unlike the portraits of the other presidents—for example Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of a noble, emperor-like George Washington– with whom Mr. Obama’s will long share space.
For Mrs. Obama, depicted with a very young-looking visage, the focal point of the painting is the sphinx-like dress of many colors—mostly African textiles– she is wearing. Both portraits are striking and can’t-get-out-of-your-mind memorable. Both portraits have generated as much, if not more, commentary as the 30-foot MLK statue on the Washington Mall. The discussion, all of it, is great for the evolution of artistic recognition and acknowledgement of Black American art.
Both Obama portraits push Black American art forward. There needs to be much, much more African American art in the public sphere, and these two new portraits will add to the growing presence of innovative, sometimes majestic and always creative Black art.
These two artists can now add their names to those of Charles White, Sargent Johnson, Archibald Motley, Joshua Johnson, Alma Thomas, Samella Lewis, Faith Ringgold, Jean Michel Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall and Mark Bradford (the latter three responsible for selling multi-million dollar paintings—-Basquiat for $110 million, Kerry Marshall for $21 million and Mark Bradford for $12 million)) as prestigious members of the African American artistic innovators club.
The Obamas did their part. We must continue that work. Recognize, acknowledge and celebrate Black cultural contributions to the US and the world. Celebrate Black art and artists !!!
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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