Smaller ears? Not for Obama

Former United States president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle (both centre) with their official portraits by artists Kehinde Wiley (left) and Amy Sherald (right).
Former United States president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle (both centre) with their official portraits by artists Kehinde Wiley (left) and Amy Sherald (right).PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON • Mr Barack Obama was given the "brush off" - not once, but twice - by artist Kehinde Wiley.

"I tried to negotiate less grey hair and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked," Mr Obama recalled on Monday, when the official portraits of the United States' first black president and his wife Michelle were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

"I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well."

Wiley tried posing him in settings "with partridges and sceptres and thrones", Mr Obama added, even "mounting me on horses".

"I had to explain that I've got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon," he said jokingly. "You've got to bring it down just a touch."

Among the prominent figures who turned out for the ceremony were film-maker Steven Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, who helped fund the commission of the portraits.

For 50 years, the official paintings of America's former leaders at the gallery had been composed of white presidents painted by white artists. But history was made on Monday, with the portraits done by black artists Amy Sherald and Wiley.

Mrs Obama said: "I'm also thinking about all the young people - particularly girls and girls of colour - who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.

"I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls."

While they were interviewing artists for the portraits, she knew immediately that Sherald, 44, was the one. "There was an instant sister-girl connection. She had this lightness and freshness of personality," Mrs Obama said.

Her husband said he, too, bonded with his artist of choice, Wiley, 40, though "maybe not in the same way - this whole sister-girl thing".

"He and I make different sartorial decisions," he continued, a joking reference to Wiley's bold choices (he wore a black-and-white patterned suit to the ceremony).

"But what we did find was we had certain things in common.

"Both of us had American mothers who raised us with extraordinary love and support. Both of us had African fathers who were absent in our lives."

Part of what Mr Obama saw in Wiley's work was the capacity to elevate ordinary people to the level of royalty, those "so often out of sight and out of mind". That got the vote from him.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2018, with the headline 'Smaller ears? Not for Obama'. Print Edition | Subscribe