After the Obama Portraits Were Unveiled, the Artist’s Shocking Earlier Work Raised a Few Eyebrows


On Monday, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama.

The internet had a bit of fun at the expense of the White House’s recent occupants. But what caught the attention of many others was who had been commissioned to paint the former president’s portrait: Kehinde Wiley.

The fact that Obama approached Wiley to paint his official portrait (Michelle Obama’s portrait was painted by Amy Sherald) is a historical first. Wiley told the Guardian in November 2017 he is the first African-American to paint an official presidential portrait.

“I can tell you that I’m the first African-American artist to create the portrait of the president. It’s a huge responsibility,” he said.

But as the Obamas’ portraits were unveiled on Monday, some took to Twitter to share a few of Wiley’s more questionable pieces — paintings that depicted black women holding up the severed heads of white women:

At least one of the questionable images is a part of Wiley’s “A New Republic” exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum from 2016 and is described as an interpretation of the Biblical story of Judith slaying Holofernes:

Another portion from Wiley’s exhibition features African American Women in these breathtaking positions. One such piece, perhaps the most direct, aggressive, and beautiful, is titled Judith and Holofernes. The beheading of Holofernes by Judith was given in the Book of Judith, and was portrayed many times in painting and sculpture during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

A tale of a woman taking power over a man, would often portray the woman as a menacing and deadly. Here, Wiley inserts upon a garden-like background a powerful African American woman, her dark locks tightly bundled and garbed in a midnight blue gown. In her left hand, swinging slightly in front of her, we see the decapitated head, not of a man or Holofernes, but of a white woman. A golden blade peaks out behind the beheaded, tightly shifted down, like the blade is awaiting another stab. The woman holds the head almost proudly, powerful and supreme.

Wiley’s exhibit is described as a visual depiction of the paradigm shift demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement and Beyonce’s “Formation” video.

The former president explained that he chose Wiley because he appreciated his style and talent, but also because they shared similar histories. Both Obama and his portraitist were raised by their American mothers without their African fathers.

“In some ways, our journey involved searching for them and figuring out what that meant,” he said.

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