During the eight years President Barack Obama served in office, it was his wife, Michelle, who ruled when it came to fashion and style. While many of us wished we could have seen our former First Lady sporting the perfect natural twistout and wearing gold hoop earrings, as depicted in those fictitious pictures that float around on social media, we understood the fine line she had to walk between American presidential expectations and Black cultural significance. So we appreciated even more when the Obamas threw caution to the wind, defying status quo of their positions, and offered the public a view of their authentic hailed-from-the-South-Side-of-Chicago selves. This wasn’t any different than when her official portrait was revealed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where artist Amy Sherald’s rendering of Mrs. O didn’t deviate from the standard she so perfectly executed during her time in the White House. While previous presidential paintings portrayed the uniform Victorian-esque style of art, Sherald’s work was refreshingly different and an obvious reflection of who Michelle Obama is: powerful, feminine and brilliant.
In a posture reminiscent of August Rodin’s “The Thinker,” Obama is positioned against a sky-blue background that provides the perfect contrast to her grey-toned, finished skin. She leans slightly forward toward us, the folds in her white dress hang with simple patterns scattered, disclosing that her knee is crossed over her leg. This body language, universally, suggests she’s interested. In us, our wellbeing undoubtedly. Thankfully, the arms that caused so much ill-conceived controversy after her first official portrait was revealed are still there, bare, defying standards and challenging us 10 more reps with the weights.
But it’s Obama’s gaze that pulls us in. Her eyes are strong and pierce with intention; she communicates her departure from established norms is not just on purpose but hold purpose. Whether she was embraced or rejected wasn’t her concern—her easy, elegant demeanor showed that. If you bought into her concepts and her inevitable determination to have them realized, then her mission was accomplished. The championing of womanhood she began during her husband’s Obama administration is sustained through the artist’s visual representation. This piece not only reflects Mrs. Obama the First Lady, but it advises the onlooker that she is unapologetically Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama all her own.
Perhaps this was motivation for the harsh and unwarranted criticism Sherald’s portrait received once unveiled. A Black woman dared to resist the traditions of a society via a medium systematically asserted as exclusive to the elite. Obama’s portrait, painted by a Black woman a culturally significant decision all its own, is a resounding statement of power, femininity and brilliance.