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Artist With Big Local Presence Picked To Paint President Obama’s Official Portrait

by Kehinde Wiley

On Friday, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery announced that it has commissioned the museum’s official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Artist Amy Sherald has been chosen to paint Mrs. Obama, while the portrait of President Obama will be created by Kehinde Wiley — an artist who has a sizeable local presence.

According to 21c’s chief curator Alice Gray Stites, the museum has five works by Wiley in its permanent collection — two of which are on-view in Louisville right now as part of “Pop Stars,” and one that is included in a current exhibition at 21c Lexington.

“His portraits are vibrant, vividly-colored renditions of African-American men and women, presented often larger than life-size and often in the guise of figures from 18th and 19th century art history,” Gray Stites says.

But Gray Stites says Wiley’s work is not just conceptually beautiful.

“He has transformed, in a sense, portraiture in the 21st century from being a practice that is focused upon highlighting someone’s likeness or their role in politics in society, to making portraiture a platform for examining a wide-range contemporary issues and conditions,” Gray Stites says.

Wiley’s work in the past has dealt with issues like representation of people of color in art history and how media depictions differ across race.

“He is probably one of the most influential American painters today,” Gray Stites says. “The interesting thing and the inspiring thing about [the Obamas] making that choice is that they are not only choosing great figurative painters, but they are choosing great American artists.”

Barack Obama’s presidential portrait will be unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. in early 2018.

More information about 21c’s current exhibits can be found here.