The World Reacts to the Obama Portraits

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"Ok, now draw me like I'm sitting in a large hedge".

Sherald, who won the National Portrait Gallery's Outwin Boochever prize in 2016, has painted Michelle Obama's face in the gray tones of an old black-and-white photograph, set against a preternaturally bright background, a technique she has used to introduce a heightened sense of the surreal in many of her works. The painters they've picked to portray them - Kehinde Wiley, for Mr. Obama's portrait; Amy Sherald, for Mrs. Obama - are African-American as well. "The greenery of the backdrop shows us Obama's vitality and global connectedness - but the man himself feels still stuck at his desk".

The president's portrait will have a permanent home in the Portrait Gallery's recently renovated "America's Presidents" exhibition and Mrs. Obama's will be on view in the recent acquisitions section of the museum through November 2018. She says African American portraiture by black artists began in earnest during the Harlem Renaissance.

The former first lady reflected on the impact that the portrait could have on girls of color. An official portrait of Michelle Obama was also revealed at the same event. Her subjects, including the first lady, are exposed, and open, and that in itself is fairly radical within the narrow limits of presidential portraiture.

"Nobody in my family tree as far as I can tell had their portrait done", said Mr Obama.

"It's a completely different portrait from the portraits that surround us in this gallery", Taina Caragol, with the National Portrait Gallery, said.

Wiley said of the work: "I am painting women in order to come to terms with the depictions of gender within the context of art history". Although each flower on the official portrait depicted his journey on Earth - chrysanthemum, the official flower of Chicago, Hawaii's jasmine, blue lilies from Africa - all symbolic of Obama's heritage, it reminded others of something else.

I may like Sherald's work even more - it's not a contest between these two artists, but the full effect hasn't sunk in yet. As with many works of art, this was meant to be provocative ("I think at its best what art is doing is setting up a set of provocations", Wiley said in a 2015 interview).

Not only are the Obamas the first African-American presidential couple to be enshrined in the collection. Former vice president Joe Biden chatted with VIP guests across the aisle, including one of the National Portrait Gallery's commissioners Randi Levine.

Artist Amy Sherald made subtle but bold statements in her piece with Michelle Obama.

Perhaps as a sign of the growing polarisation that the United States is experiencing, both portraits generated praise and admiration from the critics, who highlighted the place of the Obama in the history of the USA, and reactions from a perplexed public, trying to decipher the message.

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