The presidential portraits wing of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is lined with paintings of very powerful and equally pasty men. Its walls, filled with bowties, powder wigs and pursed lips, speak two well-known truths at once: Both the history of American politics and the history of Western art are blindingly white.
In 2018, however, the gallery will receive an addition unlike the rest. As was reported earlier this fall, a portrait of former President Barack Obama will join the Smithsonian ranks next year, painted by 44-year-old contemporary art star Kehinde Wiley. As a result, Obama will become the first black president featured in the gallery, and Wiley (along with Amy Sherald, commissioned to paint Michelle Obama), the first black artist to grace its halls.
The former president and first lady hand-picked the artists who will render their official portraits. And those decisions hold weight. Antwaun Sargent, a 29-year-old critic who’s covered Wiley extensively, felt personally affected by Obama’s historic choice. “I grew up in Chicago,” he told HuffPost. “I knocked on doors in the dead of winter when Obama was running for Senate. To see him choose an openly queer, black man who has devoted his career to depicting black folks, it’s really full circle for me.”
Wiley’s paintings are easy to discern. Their backgrounds typically involve a florid design quietly creeping toward the fore, its composition a melting pot of British Arts and Crafts textiles and Dutch-made African wax prints. Up front is usually a figure ― young, attractive and black ― dressed in contemporary streetwear and mimicking the stances of Old Master heroes like Napoleon Bonaparte or Charles V.
Wiley’s painted subjects are often categorized as “normal,” in that they’re not particularly rich or famous, as portrait sitters for Titian or Jacques-Louis David tended to be. Wiley scouts his subjects himself, either on the streets of New York or through open casting calls. Like many artists, Wiley has an appreciation for beauty, but he gravitates toward a lesser documented masculine allure that manifests in hip style, performative swagger, defined muscles, tattoos and radiant black skin.
“Sometimes I’d walk through the galleries just to look at the way the faces and the hands are painted, all the nuances of black,” Eugenie Tsai, the Brooklyn Museum curator who organized a 2015 exhibition of Wiley’s work, recalled.