Michelle Obama's Portrait Milly Dress Sends a Powerful Political Message

Artist Kehinde Wiley and Barack Obama participate in the unveiling of Obama's portrait. REUTERS  Jim Bourg

The artist who painted former President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian has a history of including depictions of sperm in his work, and has been described as "predatory" and "perverse" by The Village Voice.

With the unveiling here Monday at the National Portrait Gallery of the official presidential likenesses of Barack Obama and the former first lady, Michelle Obama, this city of myriad monuments gets a couple of new ones, each radiating, in its different way, gravitas (his) and glam (hers). Wiley says the books served as a "menu" of the elements of a portrait.

America's 44th president revealed that "like Michelle, I have never had a painting done of myself", and that no one in his family tree had, either, as far as he could tell.

Then President Obama and Wiley went to unveil their portrait. "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 said.

For the most part, though, people were just really excited.

It's one of the questions Obama asked him when they met.

Ms Obama heaped praise on Ms Sherald's work.

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Michelle Obama said she "was a little overwhelmed, to say the least", after seeing her portrait. The use of gray is a political statement of sorts for Sherald, in which she discards the assigned "color" of African-American subjects. She's seated in a pensive pose against a background of powder blue, and the painting is very clearly not meant to be photorealistic. "And how they might see themselves in that presidency".

"We miss the way those who worked with us on this incredible journey carried yourselves and worked so hard to make this country a better place", he said.

Artist Amy Sherald created Michelle Obama's portrait, in which she wears a custom geometric halter dress designed by Michelle Smith, the creative director at Milly. Her models are black, and they are creatures of fashion who stand upright against backdrops of pastel monochrome. "I knew I wanted something that was colorful, something that had a bold kind of pattern on it". In one hand, she holds a knife. In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture.

Despite the famous subjects, both artists say their portraits are consistent with their established style. Portraits can also be entirely conceptual, but the process whereby the National Portrait Gallery commissions presidential portraits is structured to prevent anything too radical emerging from the artist.

Guess what? The post, subtly titled "PORTRAIT PERVERSION: Obama Portrait Features 'SECRET SPERM, ' Artist Joked About 'Killing Whitey, '" posits that the answer to both of the above questions is yes.

But ultimately, it presents something new.

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