It’s Presidents Day, and now a week since former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama unveiled their official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. The portraits, by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively—both black painters—are such sharp departures from any previous depictions of a president and first lady that reviews were understandably mixed, even among our own crew here at The Root (including yours truly).
Especially in considering Michelle Obama’s portrait, it took a moment to reconcile her portrayal with our expectations. Where was the warmth we’d become so accustomed to during the Obama era? The radiant smile? The glorious brown skin?
While Wiley’s portrait of our 44th president’s portrait seemed lush and even playful—if whimsically unconventional for a leader of the free world—Sherald’s portrait of his wife, posed similarly to Rodin’s The Thinker, seemed to almost recede by comparison, like a cherished photograph that had already faded much too soon for our comfort. To some of us, it seemed more like a suggestion of our favorite first lady, rather than a portrait of the lady herself.
And yet, in the days since—for this writer, at least—it has been difficult not to return to look at it again and again.
As Doreen St. Felix wrote in a wonderful analysis for the New Yorker:
The racializing schema of Sherald’s work is to “exclude the idea of color as race,” she has said, in her artist’s statement. To Sherald, the photorealistic depiction of race—a quality determined by others’ eyes, externally—is a dead end. Applied to Michelle Obama, the lack of brown in the skin feels first like a loss, and then like a real gain. This is a different Michelle, a woman evacuated of celebrity, who appears provisionally dreamlike, nearly a shadow. The mouth and the eyes and the strong arms that we know are present, but fainter. From some distance, I can imagine, the figure might not be immediately recognizable.
Of the many things that have been written about Michelle Obama’s portrait since its unveiling just over a week ago, several articles have focused on the dress she chose to be immortalized in, one made by American (semi-)affordable luxury label Milly, designed by Michelle Smith. Indeed, it is the most visually striking element of the portrait, featuring graphic-patterned patches in black, red, yellow, pink and beige, scattered across the white foreground of the skirt. It drapes across Obama’s lap in much the same way I remember quilts draping across my Mississippian great-grandmother’s lap decades ago.
Many have been quick to make the same comparison, especially noting similarities between Obama’s dress and the famously graphic geometric quilts created for over a century in Gee’s Bend, Ala. At the unveiling, artist Amy Sherald spoke to the similarities herself, saying:
The dress chosen for this painting was designed by Milly. It has an abstract pattern that reminded me of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s geometric paintings. But Milly’s design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces.
But designer Smith apparently had no such correlation in mind when she created the print. She spoke to Vogue about the dress, saying, “It’s made of a stretch cotton poplin print in a clean, minimal, geometric print without a reference to anything past or nostalgic, which gives the dress a very forward-thinking sensibility—this is very Michelle Obama.”
But while Smith may not have read a metaphor for quilting in her own work, is it safe for her to assume that a woman as aware and astute as Michelle Obama—well known for her strategic sartorial statements—didn’t? Aside from evoking the great Southern tradition of quilting—as well as the Stars and Stripes famously hand-sewn for this country—is it so outlandish to consider that her gown might also evoke the racial patchwork that makes up the country her husband so recently led?
To glean more insight, The Glow Up spoke with textile artist, clothing designer, children’s book author and illustrator, and master quilter Cozbi Cabrera, a 2017 Lincoln Center artist-in-residence whose own quilts have been shown at the Myrtle Beach Art Museum, concurrent with an exhibit on the quilters of Gee’s Bend. Like many others, she isn’t so quick to discredit the correlation between the white American designer dress and the black American South:
Well, I think for starters that designers have to be aware that they are influenced greatly, and that fashion overall is derivative. So, whether we are doing it consciously or subconsciously, there is something about putting all of these elements together that’s going to strike a chord or trigger a memory or something.
So, I think that she’s probably not being—I wouldn’t even use the word “truthful”—I think that she’s probably not being aware of this idea that fashion is derivative. So, it comes from somewhere. And I think that rightfully so, [Amy Sherald’s] notion of her choice is very telling as well.
Cabrera is also quick to note the very “American story” of Gee’s Bend, an isolated peninsula about 35 miles southwest of Selma, Ala., with a population of less than 300, according to the 2010 census. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. visited the enclave—primarily African American and reachable almost exclusively by ferry—three weeks before Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” to encourage voter registration. However, three years before, Alabama’s government had shut down ferry service to nearby Camden, further isolating the community from basic necessities like medical attention, employment and participation in the democratic process.
And yet, even in isolation, their traditions continued. In 2002, the Whitney Museum in New York City mounted a show of the quilts of Gee’s Bend, to rave reviews. The New York Times’ art critic called them “eye-poppingly gorgeous,” while others marveled at the fact that these modernist creations could have generated within a place seemingly cut off from inspiration, as Cabrera notes:
[T]heir quilts showed up at the Whitney Museum in New York, and the reviews came back that what they were doing rivaled anything that you’d find in 20th-century art. ... how could it be? How could they have these sophisticated influences if they were in isolation? And it’s almost like an assumption that the Creator—or what I would call the Divine—sort of sprinkles sophistication and aesthetic instincts only on a particular group of people, in only a particular geographic location, you know?
Similarly, Cabrera believes it may be shortsighted to underestimate the deep significance and skill in Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama—or to assume the former first lady’s intentions in choosing her for the commission. Because, ultimately, isn’t art—like beauty—in the eye of the beholder? Said Cabrera:
I think that in a less masterful hand, most people have a tendency to kind of throw in the kitchen sink, and in my mind, [Sherald] made some very deliberate choices as to what to leave out, and what was left was the likeness of Michelle Obama. So we got that it was her—you know it was quite a bit of fluidity of line, and then these elements of patch. All that’s left in my mind visually were the essentials to kind of like, tell the story.
How [Milly designer Michelle Smith] might feel about that, I think it’s almost not even relevant because I think that the larger community got what was being communicated. And so, I think that’s why you keep hearing, again and again, this notion of [the] quilt. I think that there’s a language that we all understand, and that’s what you get with people groups; like the things that don’t have to be spoken but are understood. ... It’s not uncanny that the community is saying similar things along a similar vein, because we do have this common understanding.
And for those of us who, at first glance, might have wanted something more colorful and dramatic for our first black first lady, perhaps it’s worth taking a beat, and considering who Michelle Obama really is, as Cabrera’s deft analysis reminds us: “To me, it’s the visual equivalent of a stage whisper, which draws more attention to itself.”