The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has commissioned artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley to paint the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.

The assignment is historic because Sherald and Wiley are the first Black artists to be commissioned by the art museum to paint a president and first lady. During their term in office, the Obamas brought several works by notable artists such as abstract expressionist Alma Thomas, and conceptual artist Glenn Ligon into the White House. It is only fitting that their portraits are painted by Wiley and Sherald, a pair– dubbed “rising star artists” by the Washington Journal.

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Wiley and Sherald are championing a different genre of contemporary art. Both artists are known for depicting black characters in an alternate and mythical world far different from the traditional narrative of oppression and struggle.

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Amy Sherald, a 44-year-old artist based in Baltimore, portrays her subjects in fictional settings often assuming fairytale-like roles. Her paintings show young black women wearing sundresses and sipping tea and young men dressed in colorful hoodies and eating ice cream, a departure from mainstream portrayals of blackness. According to Sherald, these paintings “illustrate an alternate existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history.”

 

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Wiley’s characters similarly assume fanciful roles usually associated with white nobility. His paintings show black characters in the regal poses of Old Masters portraiture, dressed in swagger and ego, and often rendered against colorful, patterned backdrops. The 40-year-old artist describes his paintings as “an investigation of how we see those[black] people and how they have been perceived over time.” Wiley’s work aims to address a perceived dissonance between the “performance of black American identity” and what it feels like to actually live as a black person in America.

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