Those unfamiliar with Sherald's other works were struck by her distinct visual style, but the decisions Sherald makes with colors serve a powerful objective and are present throughout her other works.
Of all the designers who have had the chance to grace Michelle Obama with their art, one stands out among the rest.
Wiley, an established artist whose work is held by prominent museums worldwide, has produced a characteristically flat, nearly polished surface, with intensely rich colors and a busy, sumptuous background that recalls his interest in portraiture.
The former first lady reflected on the impact that the portrait could have on girls of color. But if you ask Wiley whether his painting makes sense among the other presidential portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, he says, "I think it fits in, and it doesn't fit in". In public exit interviews, Michelle Obama is open about her relief that the eight years are over.
The former president was painted in a suit - without a tie - against a background of leaves and flowers on the edge of a wooden chair, and the former FLOTUS looked lovely in a flowy dress with geometric patterns and a halter neckline. Speaking at the portrait's unveiling, the painter said that the shapes reminded her of Gee's Bend, which is an all-black community in Alabama that's known for its quilts.
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"I'm also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who ... will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution", she added. "Pretty sharp." He thanked the Smithsonian officials. "She turned to me and said, 'I really hope that you and I can work together.' " That's when "Barack kind of faded into the woodwork", she recounted, and she and Sherald quickly bonded with "that kind of sista-girl connection" and trust a successful portrait requires.
If, as Wiley has said, his intent as an artist is to be provocative, he can consider himself successful. He mentioned his adrenaline rush, explained the symbolic system of flowers in the portrait's verdure, and sat down.
President Obama perhaps foresaw the conversation that would be sparked by the paintings. "We are aligned with female empowerment, helping others, LGBTQ rights, and we want everybody to know it". Mr. Wiley, born in Los Angeles in 1977, gained a following in the early 2000s with his crisp, glossy, life-size paintings of young African-American men dressed in hip-hop styles, but depicted in the old-master manner of European royal portraits. Wiley uses "street casting" to find his models - walking city streets and asking ordinary people if they would pose for a portrait.
If anyone was in doubt about Obama's extreme political leanings before, hopefully his choice of Wiley to paint his official portrait clarifies the matter for good.