Page 32 - Mar2019
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                                  KEHINDE WILEY PAINTS
Work Propels Brooklyn-based artist into annals of art history while placing President Barack Obama at rightful place in canon of nation’s heads of state. BY KORI TUITT
  l The first Black president of the United States
of America sits leaning slightly forward in an ornate wood- en chair, perhaps reminiscent of royalty but not exactly arrogant, his arms crossed and resting on his lap.
Barack Hussein Obama, the nation’s 44th president, peers straight ahead at the viewer while surrounded by bright green foliage and vivid pink, yellow and blue flowers that soften his direct gaze. The contrast, a man exuding power in a dark suit set against a backdrop of vibrant vegetation, is stark and the portrait itself nothing short of historic, when it was unveiled last year at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. -and for good reason.
The portrait, a magnum opus by Kehinde Wiley–a Brooklyn-and Beijing-based African-American artist known for his use of floral themes in portraits, is at once a departure in aesthetic and tradition from those of other presidents, critics said, a visual kaleidoscope that further sets Obama apart from his predecessors and yet makes indelible his position in the nation’s history.
Taína Caragol, curator of Latino art and history at the
National Portrait Gallery, said the portraits of Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, whose portrait by Amy Sherald was also unveiled at the same time, represent the histor- ical triumph in the first Black president of a country that enslaved its Black residents for 250 years being elected for two consecutive terms.
“Beyond portraying someone’s likeness, they also think critically about the tradition of portraiture itself as a tool to affirm social status,” Caragol said. “Their work is a critique and a response to the longstanding invisibility of African Americans and people of color in that art form.
Wiley, already accomplished with his work displayed around the world in major museums--including a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem and a one-person show at the Brooklyn Museum--has called the opportunity to paint Obama humbling.
“The particular honor of being the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president has been, for me, beyond any individual recognition,” he said.
Former President Barack Obama with artist Kehinde Wiley at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, February 2018

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