Who grades art?
These folks have created a stir, indeed. When #KehindeWiley and #AmySherald were named to complete these portraits, me (and many) cheered! Black artist commemorating the first Black Family. What an amazing blessing.
I was anxiously anticipating how these artist would interpret the Obamas through their eyes. I knew about the work of the commissioned artists. I don’t know what others expected to see in these pieces, but I see Black by Black Brilliance!
I came to appreciate Amy’s work when I saw her piece, “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), at The Outwin Competition. I loved that image. Big. Colorful. Black. Unique. I wanted to learn more and I appreciated all that I learned. It was unique & beautiful. I knew Michelle Obama would be represented well.
Abstract Art Matters, Too
I didn’t expect anything “traditional” from either artist. I would have been disappointed if they had succumbed to tradition.
A recent exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts featured Black Women abstracts, titled, Magnetic Fields: expanding American Abstraction 1960’s to Today. I know some folks look at abstract pieces and think, “I could have done that.” Well, you (or I) didn’t. Maybe we thought about doing something “artistic”, but stopped ourselves with self-critique. That artist stepped out on her/his vision and created something that SOMEBODY liked enough to purchase and/or display for others to like (or dislike). So there.
Nice-What is it?
A finished work (film; poem; painting; sculpture; dissertation; grant; report; etc.), is deemed complete through the eyes of its creator. It is the artists’ prerogative to like what she/he created; anyone else liking it is a bonus (of course, if it’s your boss or teacher, you’d like their approval, too).
A human subject of the artist may have an opinion, but the artist should have the last word. If you commission a selfie, you get a selfie. I — and I’m sure the Obamas — didn’t envision selfies by these unique artists. If you commission an artist to interpret you, that’s what they will do.
Some just saw the green surrounding President Obama and wanted to joke about weed or “king of the jungle”. But, the critics ignored the flowers. They told a story and were embraced by the greenery. The African Blue Lillie’s represent his African heritage, the white jasmine represents his birthplace of Hawaii & the chrysanthemum, which is Chicago’s official flower, represented his chosen home. OK, maybe Kehinde could have included some cherry blossoms, since the Obamas have fallen in love with & set up home in the DC beyond 1600 Penn. Ave. — I’ll forgive that. While those flowers may never grow in the same garden, they did grow in the life of the President of the United States.
Wiley stated that President Obama told him that he wanted to look like a “man of the people” and accessible. President Obama said he chose Wiley because his work, “challenged our conventional views of power and privilege.” I get it and I see it. Would you rather see him on a gilt & velvet throne (the probable preference for 45) or standing before some staged marble facade? I wouldn’t. Come on now, we are more creative than that.
Amy Sherald takes you there with her subtle and not-so-subtle nods to justice and activism, while embracing what she knows to be true about First Lady Michelle. No doubt, that painting nails the persona and the wishes of our First Lady. The Politico article shares the deeper activism found in the clothing designers’ work & identifies the intentional ash skin tone that represents women “of color”, while still embracing her Black womaness. It brings me joy. She’s every woman in that painting. Conscious, justice-embracing White women are welcomed, too.
I appreciate these artists for creating unique brilliance that is unmistakably them. They are the FIRST (yep, we’re still doing firsts, and no pressure) Black artists chosen to paint the President & First Lady. People who embrace their past heritage or see present expressions should feel proud to see them get on center stage. Oftentimes, people of color only have fleeting opportunities, at best, to see positive portrayals in a predominately white-driven media. Black images & stories are so often negatively depicted, it’s, sometimes, hard for even Black people to see the positives as being more accurate than fantasy. Remember the critiques of the perfect Huxtables? Even if the real Bill was horribly imperfect, why couldn’t the upstanding character of a tv show be a rule, not an exception? Good people — and bad people — come in all colors, genders, shapes & sizes.
We should be Everywhere
I get excited when I see the work of Black artists, like Woodrow Nash or Mickalene Thomas or Basquiat on the sets of Black t.v. shows, lately. Wiley & Sherald are getting that shine without compromising that style. That is so cool. There is BIG money in brand/product placement on tv and the big screen. But culture is often trumped by a default to most acceptable/traditional styles in the mainstream narrative. We should demand to see more screen time for Black actors, Black artists and businesses — and NOT just on Black networks, shows and movies. The more we see, the more accepted it becomes.
Hollywood has been questioning Black theatrical bankability for years — that myth continues to be broken. Folk across the world are gone learn that a BLACK Black Panther (superhero, Everywoman, Everyman, everybody) can AND will be successful if folks will expand their thinking and reduce their isms.
The criticism of these two brilliant artists is based upon a lack of understanding about their artistry. We all have phones, but we never take the same photo. My iphone pics make me happy but they aren’t supposed to identically replicate the work of icons like James Van Der Zee or Charles Teenie Harris, or the award winning work of Carrie Mae Weems or emerging photographer who goes by the name Sitazen Blake, creator of the SankShuned Photography Art Book series. Our viewfinders won’t capture images the same way they would or will— and it shouldn’t. But, I still appreciate their unique takes on life. That’s the beauty of artistry.
Folks need to understand that all things creative didn’t begin with and aren’t limited to the European lens. Art is much older, more profound and less constrained than that any one race, culture or era. Most great works are often appropriated from past brilliance anyway (isn’t that what Quincy Jones said about Michael Jackson?).
Lest you forget, many of the critics of the Obama First Family didn’t think they looked right as an American First Family, no matter how they appeared. They, in all of their Blackness, were as presidential as they come — it not moreso.
It’s all a matter of perception and vision. Unfortunately, some folks vision gets tainted by isms, stifled by lack of personal exposure and/or stunted by the inability u to imagine. We should have, long ago stopped thinking that Black people can’t be doctors, lawyers, superheroes, presidents, etc. We have been, we are and we will continue to be whatever we want to be.
Everybody is Creative
There are centuries of artists who have been revered or reviled by their work. Some artists works have been relegated to refrigerator doors, basements or trash heaps, just because their brilliance was left to the interpretation of one person or a few critics. Truth is, everything ain’t for everybody. So, artists rejoice and DO YOU, because if you don’t change the game, somebody else will.
When I look at abstract (or any) art again, I will remind myself of a question that a friend’s son posed to her, when he got a grade he didn’t like on a finished piece he did. He asked the question, “Who gets to grade art?” . What a great question — that’s brilliance personified. I look forward to purchasing his work one day. Or, maybe I will just be able to afford a poster or set of cards at the museum where his show is being featured. I’ll be cool with that, too.