Amy Sherald’s Official Portrait of Michelle Obama Reimagines What it Means to Be a Vibrant, Powerful Black Woman
I sat on the floor in my home studio this morning and watched the unveiling of the Obama’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery on my phone. Like most everyone else, I had celebrated the selection of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald by the Obamas to do their portraits back when it was first announced, and had been waiting excitedly to see the final results. They did not disappoint. When the moment came for each to be revealed, my breath caught in my throat each time and I audibly exclaimed “OH!”. I felt tears spring to my eyes as I took in each painting and listened to the artists speak about this moment, the journeys their careers have taken, what drives their vision for their work, and their creative processes as they worked on each portrait.
The significance of these portraits-the first Black POTUS and FLOTUS painted by the first Black artists to be selected for such a task in this tradition-is worthy of its own analysis and there are already several worthwhile reads on why these paintings, and this moment, are historical. However, I want to take a moment and share my reaction to Michelle’s portrait and the impact it is having on me because the more I look at it, the more I am jarred by what Amy has rendered; it is unlike any portrait I’ve seen of someone who looks like myself, let alone of a prominent Black woman.
I believe what Amy has done is revolutionary because not only is she subverting our preconceptions about Black skin (as she does in the rest of her work through the use of gray skin tones), but she is urging us to reconsider what kind of imagery conveys strength, vibrance, and power-especially as it pertains to Blackness and Black womanhood.
We tend to think that in order to portray vibrancy in visuals, an artist must use bold, strong colors that grab the viewer’s eye. When I think of the words “vibrant”, and “power” and “strength”, I immediately see oranges and reds, deep yellows, purples, blues, and yes, black, in my mind’s eye. But as I’m looking at this piece, I see that vibrancy, power, and strength can also look subtle and yes, soft, with light blues, grays, pinks and white. There IS power here, there IS vibrancy, there IS strength; not subdued or softened in a way that takes away from who the subject is to US, the people, but in a way that grounds her humanity while also elevating what she represents to us, the people. We are USED to seeing our beloved Michelle in full color or black and white photographs, her facial features and skin tone rich in hue yet exposed to the camera in a way that hides very little. We are also used to seeing our beloved Michelle through the lens of what she means to us, and that makes me question if reactions to this piece actually stem from those projections. What has struck me repeatedly as I stare at this piece is this thought that perhaps we are being challenged to see Michelle in a way that we haven’t previously allowed ourselves to. Have we really allowed ourselves to truly see this woman we love and revere so much? Is there something here she’d like to reveal about herself to us after these last 11 years of living under the public eye? There is a vulnerability on display here that speaks to her woman and personhood without implying weakness. And these eyes. They are resolute. Piercing. Steady. Rooted firmly to self-this is a woman who knows who she is and the look in her eyes almost asks us if we really do at all. There’s a softness in her gaze that makes me want to come in closer yet step back in reverence at the same time. It’s like she’s being immortalized here as a monument but one you can get close to and touch. There’s an intimacy that makes me wonder if Sherald’s rendering is almost protective, allowing her to be on view, but not as exposed as she would be in a photograph. The fullness of her patterned skirt speaks to the power and fullness of both her personhood, and also to the understanding that what she represents is much larger than she is herself. To reach her it almost seems as though I’d have to climb up a mountain, yet her body language and gaze leave me with a desire to run and embrace her in a familiar way, like I would my sister. I can see her heart, her fullness of spirit and the legacy she embodies all at once in a way I’ve yet to see in portraits of other public figures.
I’m not an art critic but I am a painter who knows when I’m moved by a piece and am having my ideas around identity, presentation, and tradition challenged by it. I cannot speak to this piece in the context of art history, but I can share with you why this piece has left me undone and why I believe out of the two portraits, Sherald’s is bolder. There’s a restraint here I’m utterly mesmerized by, and in exercising it, Sherald has allowed for an evolution of how Black women are perceived and depicted. It’s a bold departure, based on the artist’s previous renderings of Black women especially, but that seems to be by design. Considering that Michelle Obama has been subjected to public ridicule for looking too manly, too dark, too toned and athletic, and even called a gorilla, I see this rendering as not just capturing Michelle’s humanity, but also Sherald perhaps turning that Strong Black Woman archetype on its head in an unconventional, but necessary way.