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Kehinde Wiley, National Portrait Gallery

February 28, 2018

Have you ever recognized someone in a painting? Not like a portrait, not a caricature done at a state fair. No, sometimes you recognize a face like the cashier at the deli, dressed in colonial cufflinks and a tri-corner hat. Sometimes you're like, "Hey, buddy, I saw you last week on the subway. When did you attend a fancy dress party?"

This is why I love portraits. Sometimes they can feel stale, almost artificial, but in that rare moment when the light in their eyes connects history with the present I feel a bridge of understanding piercing through the canvas.

I first visited the National Portrait Gallery in 2009 on research for my undergraduate dissertation, and felt shivers down my spine. It's my firm belief that every American should visit the Hall of Presidents and read every word. Here we are given context. The long tail of leadership that has defined, changed, challenged, and created our world. The gallery does a remarkable job of description without judgement, giving the viewer space to reflect on their own political beliefs and others'. "When these individuals took the oath of office," a plaque on the wall describes, "they all accepted an enormous responsibility. But their specific circumstances and their distinct personalities leave us with unique stories of both triumph and failure." Boom.

New in the museum is Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Barack Obama. A black velvet rope demarcates a space for selfies and smiling, hopeful photographic souvenirs. One older man, a self-professed photographer, poses two strangers and snaps several shots ("Work it Mr President! That's the money shot!"). They laugh, and natural smiles will be admired when they're home. Everyone is happy.

It seemed so at odds with our current political climate, and I wonder how the Obamas' new portraits have affected visitorship: whether an increase in Democratic fans is offset by a dwindling cadre of Republican dissenters. Will this flip when President Trump's official portrait is presented in 3 years? Will there be protests at the entrance to the museum when that happens?

Kehinde's portrait recalls moments from Obama's campaign - hope, calmness, and yes, even change. Unlike the 43 other portraits in that gallery, this one buries the former president in nature, simultaneously revealing and concealing his seated figure. In a room full of men at desks, this one is an oasis.

Yet I can understand why people are troubled. Like much "modern" art, there's no direct explanation for the flowers (except for a few references to Hawaiian blooms for Obama's birth-state). There are memes upon memes mocking the president and the artist, Homer Simpson popping out of the bushes, Obama spying on the Russians from behind a hedge. I'll admit I've laughed at a few spoofs.

But, ultimately, this portrait both reflects Obama's term in office, and holds a mirror to our own behavior. Will we grow and blossom into flowers, or will we succumb to the weeds and be choked by cynicism?

My teabag tassel this morning says, "The difference between a flower and a weed is judgment." Perhaps it would be good to remember that.

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