Photo courtesy of vice.com.
Wiley and Obama unveil his official presidential portrait.
On Feb. 12, President Obama’s official portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was unveiled to the world, receiving some harsh criticism. The work is definitely an alternative piece compared to the many other presidential paintings – the former president is seated in a typical wooden armchair with a setting of beautiful flowers behind him. And although many may label this as disrespectful or inappropriate to deviate from the traditional portrait, there is perhaps no work that better illustrates who Obama is and what kind of legacy he is leaving behind.
The artist of this piece, Kehinde Wiley, was the perfect choice to make this painting. Wiley has focused most of his pieces around empowering African-American figures, and has made the patterns in the background, like Obama’s flowers, a stylistic trademark. Recruiting an artist who has created works dedicated to Ice T and LL Cool J to create an artwork to honor our most recent president is out of the ordinary and demonstrates, by Obama, that uncanny ability to recognize what will stand out in the public’s eye.
Next is the actual choice of botany utilized in that odd background. While at first all the flowers and buds may seem to mesh and blend together, there are three very distinct plants involved.
First, there’s the Chrysanthemum, the official flower of the City of Chicago, where Obama developed his political roots. Having the flower of the city that so many of us here in the suburbs love and take pride in is certainly intriguing. There’s also the fact that the Chrysanthemum is a natural insecticide. The artistic layers behind that are too deep to peel away in one article.
Another flower present is the Jasmine, a native flower to Hawaii, the state where Obama was born before moving to the continental U.S. Lastly, there’s the African Blue Lilies, most commonly seen in the southern half of the African mainland, including Kenya, his father’s homeland.
What does this all have to do with Obama’s legacy? It’s actually not something specific to him, but something that millions of Americans take pride in; the mixtures in our of heritages that leads to the creation of a beautiful, unique person.
I, myself, am part Scottish, part Dutch and part German. My family worked for multiple generations in Flint, Mich. for GM, creating the backbone of one of the greatest American industries. I have many military members in my family, and the pride that comes from serving and defending your nation is one of the greatest prides that I know.
That pride in my past, and what it means for my future, is what Barack Obama and I have in common. It’s what he has in common with those of us who are walking melting pots of ethnicities, cultures and geographies. No matter what Obama’s political legacy may hold, he may have demonstrated to us the beauty of what we are made up of in a way no other president has – and that’s exactly what this artist understood.
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An artist's odd rendition of Obama's presidential legacy