Who Is Kehinde Wiley? Artist Unveils Barack and Michelle Obama's Official Portraits

Who is Kehinde Wiley?
Artist Kehinde Wiley unveils his portrait of former President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., on February 12. Mark Wilson/ Getty Images

On Monday, official portraits for former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, were unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Obama chose African American artist Kehinde Wiley to create his portrait.

The painting depicted the 44th president sitting among a colorful oasis of foliage. "How about that? That's pretty sharp," Obama said when it was unveiled.

I mean... I just... I can’t explain it. #BlackExcellence @BarackObama by Kevin de Wiley pic.twitter.com/GG04zpBzOZ

— Janice Nakisha Williams (@ManhattanJan) February 12, 2018

"I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow (him) to do what I asked," the former president teased. "I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well."

Monday morning joy as portraits of President and First Lady Obama are revealed by artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley. Reminds me to hope. #ObamaPortraits pic.twitter.com/6r4NtH0rxx

— Ava DuVernay (@ava) February 12, 2018

Wiley, a Yale University–trained artist, is the first African-American artist to have his work featured in the National Portrait Gallery. He is known for his larger-than-life, regal and color-filled portraits. He often uses the heroes, saints and prophets featured in Old Master paintings from the Renaissance era and 1800s. Then, he replaces them with figures of black men and women.

Some of his most popular works of art include portraits of actor Ice T embodying Napoleon; Michael Jackson channeling Horseback by Rubens; an equestrian portrait of King Phillip II by Peter Paul Rubens; and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as a 17th-century Dutch civic guard company.

In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, the artist spoke about breaking down stereotypes of black Americans through his artistry, as well as highlighting the racial disparities suffered by minorities in the U.S. Those efforts attracted Obama to Wiley's work.

"What I was always struck by when I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege," Obama said on Monday.

A 2014 winner for the National Medal of Arts, which Barack Obama presented to him, Wiley's work has hung in the halls of the Brooklyn Museum, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and several others.

Michelle Obama was "overwhelmed" by her portrait, created by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, who is also known for underscoring the plights of black America. A Maryland Institute College of Art and Clark-Atlanta University alum, Sherald's paintings often depict black skin tones in shades of gray—a style the artist adopted to remove the assigned "color" of her subjects, which essentially led Michelle Obama to commission Sherald.

Excuse the dramatic gasp. Kehinde Wiley's portrait of @BarackObama is literally breathtaking. pic.twitter.com/9wgmViyp45

— Christina Coleman Mullen (@ChrissyCole) February 12, 2018

While thanking Sherald on Monday, Michelle Obama said she was particularly fond of how Sherald's work will inspire "girls and girls of color."

"They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution.… And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls," she said.


"Amy, I want to thank you for capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm.......and hotness of the woman that I love" #ObamaPortraits pic.twitter.com/6aku8AscAQ

— __gabbymiller (@__gabbymiller) February 12, 2018

The iconography of the Obamas has always been one of the most fascinating things about their public lives. Their deliberate and welcome assertions of blackness in privileged spaces continues here with striking portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. https://t.co/4G3TrgygiP

— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) February 12, 2018

I LOVE that Barack and Michelle Obama chose Black artists to paint their portraits. The Obamas were America's first Black first family, so it's fitting they bestowed this "first" on two Black artists as well. pic.twitter.com/nQfofwJVTy

— Britni Danielle (@BritniDWrites) February 12, 2018

Watching the Obamas at the National Portrait Gallery and getting a little emotional. I can't believe we went from a couple that had grace and integrity to this porn paying, pussy grabbing, Russia colluding craziness. America what have you done? What the hell have you done? 😭😭😭

— Angel Johnson (@AngelJo88860691) February 12, 2018