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Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, Art History, Race, and Gender

I was very excited to learn that two young, African American painters had been chosen to paint the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively.  I have followed the work of Wiley in particular over the past 15 years or so, and was very excited that the Obamas had specifically chosen these two artists for their National Portrait Gallery representations.

You can see and read about the portraits in this New York Times article here
I always tell my students that interpreting art is a deeply personal thing, so perhaps I should not have been surprised to read online that there were a number of people who did not feel as I did. Not only were people objecting to the style in which the paintings were created, they were also responding to a previous work created by Kehinde Wiley, specifically his depiction of the subject of Judith and Holofernes (yes, the ones where he paints a black woman decapitating a white woman). Viewers’ reactions to that painting, and their subsequent reaction to Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama are as intense and loaded as any discussion on race, gender and class in this country. Kehinde Wiley’s own work is also deeply layered and complex, and should not be taken at face value. Before I get into that, and my own sense of why he might have chosen to paint what he Judith and Holofernes, it may help to know a bit more about Kehinde Wiley as an artist.
What gained Wiley the most notice for his work early in his career were his photorealistic portraits of young black men in hip hop attire posed as subjects from famous art historical paintings, with Wiley’s elaborate “floration” backgrounds, as he calls them. His intention was to bring black people into the art historical narrative as main players, a role they had not previously been seen in. Frequently in art history, black people are seen in the background, or as maids and servants, and when they are not in the servant role, they are often viewed and depicted as exotic, mysterious, erotic, unknowable. 
Early in Kehinde Wiley’s work, he painted males exclusively. He also wanted to make commentary on black masculinity, the way it is viewed in American culture, and by black males themselves, and also for himself as a gay black man. As time went on, he realized he needed to include black women in his narratives, which brings us to Judith and Holofernes. You can read about and see that painting here.
The story of Judith and Holofernes was one of many Old Testament stories popular among artists during the Renaissance period.  In the story, Judith is a widow from a Jewish town under attack by the Assyrians. She plans to free her town by getting the commander of the Assyrians drunk and then killing him, which she does by decapitating him. In most depictions of the story, Judith looks timid and frankly grossed out by her task. One artist of the Baroque period, however, Artemisia Gentileschi, took a completely different approach.
Artemisia Gentileschi was a successful woman painting and working at a time when women were little more than political pawns and baby makers. She had been trained to be an artist by her father, and had been raped by one of his friends. In those days, if a woman was raped, if it could be proven that she had been raped, then the rapist had to marry her to save her reputation. Rather than subject his daughter to such a fate, Artemisia’s father took her rapist to civil court for damages. Artemisia went on to have a brilliant career, and is well known and admired for a number of reasons. When she took on the subject of Judith and Holofernes, her Judith is no timid, trembling maid, but a strong and confident woman avenging her people.
It was from Artemisia’s painting that Kehinde Wiley took the inspiration for his. Although this painting was created in 2012, it does not seem to have attracted much white outrage until now. From where I am sitting, as a white professor teaching at a historically black university, I have perhaps a better seat than most white people in which to learn directly from black people how race relations are still sadly in a very bad place in this country.  I have also marveled, when I find myself tired of trying to explain why race is still such a fraught subject in this country to other white people, how very exhausted black people themselves must be. As such, showing a black woman in a position of power, dressed as a woman from Baroque times, re-positions women of color, who have had much less power than their male counterparts, and their female white counterparts.
Is it shocking? For some, yes it is. But art is meant to shake us up, make us ask what is going on, and make us look more closely at ourselves and the world we are creating around us.  I am annoyed that with the presentation of Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama to the National Portrait Gallery, comes articles with titles like, “Obama portrait artist's past work depicted black women decapitating white women,” as if that is all the artist has ever done, and ignoring the context in which those works were made.

And so….. the conversations on race and marginalization and intersectionality must continue.


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