While America is captivated by the newly released portraits of former President Obama and first lady Michelle, there’s something curious about Obama’s artist that’s raising eyebrows: He apparently enjoys painting portraits of black women holding the severed heads of white people.
Kehinde Wiley, a New York artist who paints primarily African-American subjects in heroic poses, was chosen by former President Obama to create a portrait of the 44th president to be displayed at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Wiley’s portrait of Obama was unveiled Monday.
While the New York Times and others sang Wiley’s praises, claiming the portrait showed the president as an “alert and troubled thinker,” others wanted to know: Why is he sitting in the middle of a giant, green bush?
“[W]hat’s with all the bushes behind Obama?” asked Twitchy. “Was that some sort of subliminal play on the president before Obama?”
Even talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh weighed in: “What in the world is that? OK, I’ve gotta describe this. It’s Barack Obama sitting on what looks like a wooden throne without a high back, and he’s sitting on that throne as you might sit on yours. Except that this throne looks like it’s up against the ivy outfield wall at Wrigley Field.”
The Times also said Michelle’s portrait, painted by artist Amy Sherald, depicted the former first lady as “rock-solid cool,” but others claimed the rendering looks nothing like her.
Still, it turns out President Obama’s artist has a curious history of painting African-American women holding the severed heads of white people, according to the Media Research Center. Like the presidential portrait, the subjects are depicted with floral backgrounds.
One example is this painting known as “Judith and Holofernes,” a subject from the deutercanonical Book of Judith, which tells of a beautiful woman named Judith who beheads an Assyrian general named Holofernes, who had planned to destroy Judith’s home city.
The following painting is from Wiley’s collection known as “The Economy of Grace,” a series that focused on black women whom he recruited from the streets of New York. Wiley described the collection as “a celebration of black women, creating a rightful place within art history, which has to date been an almost exclusively white domain.”
Since white subjects rarely appear in Wiley’s work, it’s particularly curious that the painting depicts a black woman holding the head of a white man.
The Media Research Center located yet another painting by Wiley, “Judith beheading Holofernes,” that depicts a black woman with a severed head of her white victim. This 2013 painting was unveiled at the Brooklyn Museum.
Wiley has also painted many stunning portraits of African-American people without depicting severed heads. Some of his work features social-justice themes.
In his 2015 photo story for Papermag, “Black Lives Have Mattered For Thousands of Years,” he speaks about the nation’s first black president and his concerns about social justice and equality in America. As the nation was witnessing the Black Lives Matter movement in full force, Wiley wrote:
America is a country in transition. So much of the American mythos is the notion of the city on the hill — that we are a beacon of light for others to see our greatness, our social justice and equality. In the end, though, there have to be moments in which we step back, examine ourselves, and police our own actions. We have a black president, and that is a sign of progress in many ways, but we still read in newspapers every week about young black men because their bodies are in our streets. There’s significance in that and, as an artist, I have to negotiate a response that is at once critical but also curious about how this could change. These photographs move in the direction of my aesthetic, which is decidedly art-historical, while exploring the strange intersection between that history and this particular moment in American culture.
None of this stuff is clean — the history of art is the history of empire and social domination. As I’m co-opting the visual language of historical society portraiture, I’m very aware that those portraits, and as a result my own works, are made on the backs of every single person who came before us in the fields of Cuba, or Haiti, or Jamaica, or Brazil, or South Carolina. On some level, we’re all dirty.
I stand on the shoulders of many great artists whose work emphasizes the importance of diversity in American society. Black lives matter because it’s a prescient thing to highlight in this moment of cultural evolution. But black lives have mattered for thousands of years. My interest is in the now — what does it feel like to be black in 2015?
When former President Obama chose Wiley to create the presidential portrait, he said, “[W]hat I was always struck by when I saw [Wiley’s] portraits was the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege.”
In one of his 2009 portraits, Wiley painted the late pop star Michael Jackson posing and riding a horse as King Phillip II.
Another, his 2013 painting “Anthony Padua,” depicted a young black man dressed as a Black Panther.
Wiley talks about some of his work and inspiration for “A New Republic” in the following video: