|Today, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald became the first black artists to create official, Smithsonian-commissioned portraits of a former President and First Lady.And Michelle and I joined our distinguished predecessors and thousands of our fellow Americans on the walls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
To call this experience humbling would be an understatement.
That’s because, as a former president, when you choose an artist to describe your likeness, you have the opportunity to shape, quite literally, how someone sees the office of the American presidency. And how they might see themselves in that presidency.
Kehinde Wiley and I share some things in common. Both of us had an American mother who raised us, an African father who was absent from our lives, and a search to figure out just where we fit in. I wrote a book about that journey, because I can’t paint. But I suspect a lot of Kehinde’s journey is reflected in his art. I was struck by the way his portraits challenge the way we view power and privilege; the way he endows his subjects, men and women often invisible in everyday life, with a level of dignity that not only makes them visible, but commands our attention.
The arts have always been central to the American experience. They provoke thought, challenge our assumptions, and shape how we define our narrative as a country.
Thanks to Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, generations of Americans — and young people from all around the world — will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens. These works upend the notion that there are worlds where African Americans belong and worlds where we don’t. And that’s something Michelle and I hope we contributed to over the eight years we were so privileged to serve you from the White House.
They’ll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic.
And I hope they’ll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.