The Obama Portraits: Amazing or Atrocious?

Let’s begin with some disclosure: I love Barak and Mitchelle Obama. Not with the glassy-eyed awe of a worshipper but with the silent humming pride you feel when someone in the family makes the entire tribe proud.

I watched their initial campaign with equal parts of hope, fear and a pinch-me-wow-this-is-real amazement that lingers to this day. I followed their tenure in office with the same amazement and I wish them and theirs well in all they do.

So when, I heard they were unveiling their Presidential portraits at Smithsonian, I was elated. The feeling didn’t last long.

Full disclosure: I am not a trained art critic and I won’t pretend to be one. But even to my amateur eyes, the portraits failed to render what one would expect from a presidential painting: elegance, gravitas and an artistic depth that conveyed without words how important, how historic, how novel their tenure was.
The paintings presented do none of this.

Close scrutiny of the works done by both artists look like a devious defence pre-arranged by the best Devil’s Advocate. Kehinde Wiley, the painter of Mr Obama’s portrait, has a gallery full of work that is done in similar style. He also has work depicting the beheading of white women and often paints sperm on the portraits of his subjects.

Amy Sherald, who painted Mrs Obama, has a gallery of work with pastel colours and abstract themes and appears to be much less controversial. Her portrait of Mrs Obama was largely praised with Mr Obama being the first to commend her ability to bring his wife’s ‘hotness’ alive in the work. Others have fallen over themselves to praise her work as well but a small group of people have noted that the portrait doesn’t look much like Mitchelle Obama but appears to be a re-imagining (of her).

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Final disclosure: I do not like the portraits.
But that is not important, both of them seem to love their portraits very much. Mrs Obama said she was honoured and humbled to be the first person in her family to sit for one. Mr Obama had only good words for his as well.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of anger and mild shame I feel especially about Mr Obama’s picture.

Every time I look at it I feel a deep sense of loss. And this was before more problematic issues emerged about his portrait: the sperm cell on his face, the repetitive pattern of the leaves, the ‘sixth finger’ on his right hand.

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I think the leaves and flowers might have been well intentioned but they were overdone. I think the sperm cell is atrocious. I think that Mr Obama should have another portrait, a do-over.

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But we know that won’t happen.

Critics and foes of Mr Obama were vitriolic in their expressions of disgust about the portraits. Calling it a befitting semblance of a man they loathed. And that is what annoys me most of all.
Mr Obama maybe many things but one thing he is not is ugly, if anything, the portrait should have highlighted his handsomeness. It failed woefully.

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The hullabaloo seems to have died. The good news is that the gallery housing both portraits have witness a huge boost in patronage. Sources say they are almost unable to cope with the throng of people coming to see the portraits. It is good to know something good has come of these singularly polarising portraits.

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The bets are on about the historical verdict these portraits will receive. Will they be hailed as brave masterpieces ahead of their time? Or mocked as fledgling peasant art that couldn’t hold its own?

We wait, and hope one day, to see.

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Black Panther: Black Empowerment Beacon, Catalyst For Change Or Just A Movie?

 

Whether you live under a rock in the Dead Sea or on Kilimanjaro’s peak, you must have heard that this weekend is the Black Panther Premier. Anticipation for this day has been building for close to a year. Black and brown people the world over have voiced their glee about being represented, feeling empowered, and feeling seen.

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Along with that excitement, positivity, pomp, has come an opposing school of thought who have criticised the hype around Black Panther and decried the sheer fanatical fevor it has attracted.

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The critics of the black response have endeavoured to remind everyone that Black Panther is fiction. They have argued that it is just a dream world, far removed from the everyday struggles of people of colour; unable to create change.

But that is where they are wrong.

Black Panther maybe an Afro-futurist science fiction movie set in the mythical land of Wakanda but it is the kind of fiction that inspires humans to dream and change.

Humans are notoriously resistant to anything that alters their habits and threatens their status quo. To create a change, one must do a few things that Black Panther does excellently.

Interest
With the range and scale of entertainment, both free and paid, one of the challenges of anyone with a message is getting and audience. How can I get people to spend scarce consumer minutes and engage with my art?

That is an important question for many artists but for Black Panther, that was a freebie. Riding on a market rife with underrepresentation for people of colour and stereotypical stunted stories, Black Panther enjoyed instant interest. Without knowing much about the story or plot, Black people identified Black Panther as something they had wanted for ages. Excellent advertisements including multiple demographically sensitive and stunningly beautiful posters kept the anticipation building. Now Black Panther has the interest of the entire world. People all over the world are a gains with the story, the characters, the fashion and the message. Interest has been secured.

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Entertain
As of today, it is still difficult to get a chance to watch the movie. People who weren’t a part of the avalanche of pre sales are finding it difficult to secure seats. The privileged ones who have watched the movie already are nearly unanimous in there praise. Summary: this movie delivers in its promise to entertain.

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When people are entertained, they are open to new ideas. A famous writer said entertain people and you can get away with anything. Entertaining art is engaging. It makes people look beyond their past and present, it makes people think, it makes people feel.

Inspire
When people are able to think and feel differently, they can change but one thing makes that easier, that is inspiration. Black Panther inspires. The collective mood of all the black people that watched it one of gladness, hope and possibilities. Children are dressing like the characters, young adults are practicing Wakanda handshakes, but more importantly, black people are asking themselves important questions: What if Africa can chart a new course? What if black people can unite to create a better nation? Can the African Union be more? Do more?

Naysayers have scoffed at the venerated tones in which the movie has been described reductively string that it is “just a movie” “a white man’s construct”
“a waste of time.” I disagree.

I believe that any art: book, movie, poem or song that is able to capture the people’s imagination in this way is more than just a movie. I think that most of the great things man has ever accomplished came from thinking, feeling inspired people. Once, the car, phone, aeroplane and computer were just dreams. Once Holland did it exist and neither did Israel. A movie like Black Panther, a place like Wakanda might just be make believe today, but it is planting seeds for change in the hearts of millions that will fruit in thousands of ways.

Some where, a little boy has decided to be a great, passionate leader of his people. Some where, a little girl has made up her mind to be a brilliant military tactician. Somewhere, an intersex kid is dreaming of a model for a strong prosperous developed Africa.

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And right here, right now we have the gift to be alive while the most advanced Afro-futurist movie of all time premiers. Ignore Black Panther if you can, but do not look down on those who see beyond its imperfection to its possibilities, because that is the only way things have changed from what they were to what they could be.

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So, is Black Panther a beacon of black empowerment, a catalyst for change or just a movie? The answer is, it can be any of these things or even all three, you get to decide.