The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama that hang permanently in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery travel across the United States. The exclusive host of works in the southeastern region of the United States is the High Museum of Atlanta, showing the images in a special exhibition on display through March 20. Artist Amy Sherald, a graduate of Clark Atlanta University, has painted an iconic portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama. She joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share her view on this powerful representation, unlike any image of the White House to come before.
The characteristic pattern of the French “grisaille” used in Sherald’s striking image:
“I would,” Sherald said, “As soon as I finish painting the skin a grey, or gray, or make it in that ‘gray’ tone, I’ll go back in with the brown tones.” “I realized that first, I really liked the aesthetic of it. I liked the way the canvas was, the colors are so bright, and this really gray leather, I don’t know, I just thought it looked cool. I think that’s what most artists do when they get creative, they think In what looks good, it’s not exactly what things mean at the moment.”
“Ultimately, I realized that in hindsight, I was trying to find a way to represent these black characters that I’m painting in a way that the conversation about the work isn’t marginal. I wanted these images to be present in our history in a global way,” said Sherald.
“Over time, I began to associate my desire to use this skin tone with… looking at the very few pictures my mother had of her mother, her father, his mother. And these are black and white photos, and there is something about them that has to do with modern photography, it just doesn’t capture the human soul. … in the same way that you see portraits of people in daguerreotypes and photography in the nineteenth century, in that dignified way in which we were finally able to represent ourselves after the invention of the camera.”
About Mrs. Obama’s Floral Geometric Pattern Dress:
“As soon as I first saw it, I thought of Gee’s Bend and Gee’s Bend, Alabama filters, because those styles were so familiar to me because of that,” Sherald said. “But they were also familiar to me because of studying European Art History at Spelman College with Dr. Arturo Lindsay. So it was a way, one, to relate it to the black American narrative without being educational, and to anchor it in that history, but also, it was a reference to European painting, that The same forms we also see in the works of Piet Mondrian, for example.”
“The way I cut it, with it flowing from the fabric, I think it was something I did so that it felt like it was sitting on top of a mountain, creating this pyramid of sorts – a top. And it’s surrounded by this blue that creates the void around it, the air, so that there is movement in the painting.
A redemptive gesture in the eliminative history of American art:
“Every painting I make…I don’t take it for granted, as a black woman being an American painter and also a figurative painter, every painting I make makes up for lost time,” said Sherald. “If you think about art history… and realize that the first exhibition of African American artists took place in the 1930s and 1940s, then you can understand the image and put it into a deeper context and context of what form represents in our history because there has been an absence of that narrative for centuries.”
“I received cards from high school students, from elementary school students from all over the United States in anticipation of seeing work, and expressing their interest and pleasure in seeing someone who looked like me, who was a painter who was drawing a portrait of someone who looked like them.”
More information on visiting the High Museum’s special exhibition of Obama portraits, viewable through March 20, can be found at high.org/exhib/the-obama-portraits-tour.