On Portraits, Blackness, and Art
An artist is a precarious thing to be.
I’m thinking of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, and all the conversation that arose from yesterday’s presidential portrait unveiling. How doesn’t an artist crack under such pressure?
The artists were called to create on a grand stage, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, but stayed committed to their style, vision, and expression. They created and worked all the while knowing that the public would expect the total sum of all their hopes and dreams which may not necessarily be true to the artists themselves.
President Obama and the First Lady Michelle saw Wiley’s and Sherald’s work and determined they wanted that same aesthetic and vision for their presidential portraits. The couple looked at the portraits that came before them and, instead, went with what resonated with them.
And that’s the thing about being black in America. Precedent and convention often deliver results that say: you don’t exist, you’re not human, you’re not adequate. You have to find the courage and vision to somehow make your self.
The work of both artists reflects a lifelong commitment to creating art that confronts their social reality and reflects their humanity. They created, arguably, the most currently scrutinized pieces of art in the world and they remained unwavering as if to say, who I am is all I really need to be. To live authentically, every black person has to cross the threshold of that statement.
For me, this episode has underscored even more deeply why African-American artistry and culture remains one of the most influential phenomena in the world.
Being black in America shares the same pulse as being an artist. It is a discovery of what it is to be human.