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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.