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I Can’t Stop Thinking About the Official White House Obama Portraits

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 07: Former U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama participate in a ceremony to unveil their official White House portraits at the White House on September 7, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Obama’s portraits will be the first official portraits added to the White House Collection since President Obama held an unveiling ceremony for George W. Bush and Laura Bush in 2012. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

On September 7, the Biden Administration and the White House Historical Association (WHHA) revealed the official White House portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. This ceremony was supposed to be something for the Trump Administration, but Trump’s narcissism delayed it for years. Different from the Smithsonian‘s National Portrait Gallery, these images, created by artists Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung, will stay in the White House and be a part of their official image. Like many other parts of the Obama presidency, these images look so different from the dozens of portraits before them.

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Let’s talk about Sprung’s take on Michelle first. First Lady portraits, with very few exceptions, tend to be much more interesting than their spouses’ which I think is part of the rigid gender roles for men. However, this year, they both shine. Michelle’s portrait has her sitting on the iconic red couch, wearing a beautiful baby blue chiffon dress. Sprung told the WHHA that she was initially going to have her standing for a dignified look, but noted “she doesn’t need dignity. She has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting.”

The dress is by the same designer (Jason Wu) who designed both of her inaugural ball gowns and many other key moments relating to her role. Part of Michelle’s legacy was the concentrated effort to bring in younger designers, often selecting people of color to design her looks. The color of the dress is the same worn in Lady Bird’s portrait in the 1970s. The fact that she even wore a dress in the image is a reflection of her more relaxed look compared to the suit looks of the last few First Lady portraits.

44’s official portrait

Barack’s portraits stand in stark contrast to Michelle’s and even to all others visually behind him, with the exception of former President John F. Kennedy. JKF’s uniqueness came from the washed-out colors, and his face pointed down due to his assassination. However, Barack’s comes from the bright, solid white background, and my first thoughts were super literal. Maybe the solid white represents every other president before him, or this was representing his presidency as a fresh page? These went out the window when I looked closely at the details of wear and age of his body and suit.

Regardless of my own aversion to backgrounds, I knew this lack of one was 100% on purpose. Looking at McCurdy’s past paintings and listening to his interviews with The Obama Foundation and the WHHA, he’s affirmed this is the point: In addition to having his subject directly engage with the viewer, this blankness left it up to the viewer to fill in that space with what they think about him. Most people will have a general idea, but critically engaging with his legacy reasonably makes this image very complicated and something I’ve been sitting with for about a week now.

Shifting image

As someone who was not nearly as engaged with the news as I am now, being 14 in 2008, my understanding of the Obama presidency had been very limited until a few months into the Trump presidency. Before 2017, I only knew him as the first Black president and the guy that made DACA happen. This was a game changer for many people I knew at the time, as we were all in 11th grade and thinking about our future at the time.

A few years later, I would read his pre-presidency autobiography, Dreams From My Father, and very slowly look into his domestic policies, including immigration. Much of this interest would be because of the flustered reaction of mainstream media when very racist members of the Trump Administration (including Trump himself) would say something along the lines of “Where was this for Obama?” Most of the time, this whataboutism was deflection from the Trump administration genuinely, intentionally making things worse and more bigoted, but there was a grain of truth that was easy to put off following up on because I had other responsibilities and/or Trump’s policy was more pressing at the moment.

Even still, I hadn’t really gotten into the weeds of his legacy until 2020 (partly to better understand Biden), and this year, after dragging my feet on the question of “Why do people call him a war criminal?” (which is saying something, because I’m naturally very curious), I’ve taken a closer look. One of the best starting points that is also honest and vulnerable is F.D. Signifier in his two-part video essay Obama & the Myth of Black Excellence (part two). The video is very timely because it’s framed around a visit to the gorgeous portraits of the couple from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

While I love Wiley’s portrait more for a number of reasons, it doesn’t make me as uncomfortable as McCurdy’s, and I think that uneasiness, for me, in this particular subject is McCurdy’s strength. Not only will I see something different from others in McCurdy’s, but I might see something different in a few years.

(featured image: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.

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