What’s not quite fine about Barack Obama’s portrait

I found it refreshing this morning to read J.E. Dyer’s defense of the official portrait of Michelle Obama against the many nitpickers who found something to complain about.

I was actually prepared to offer up a defense of the portrait of her husband as well, or at least of Kehinde Wiley, the artist who painted it. I had seen all the scuttlebutt surrounding his fondness for painting black women holding a sword in one hand and a a severed head in the other.

Having co-authored and/or edited some dozen books on fine art in a previous life, I assumed the subject of the work might be the biblical story of Judith luring to her tent and beheading Holofernes, King Nebuchadnezzar’s Jew-murdering general. This subject matter has been grist for numerous paintings throughout the history of western art.

Sure enough, when I dug a little further I determined that that was indeed the topic of Wiley’s painting. I also uncovered this:

[Kehinde Wiley is] known for taking instantly recognisable portraits by the likes of John Singer Sargent or Jacques-Louis David and reimagining them to reflect contemporary African American icons.

Then I noticed a detail that initially escaped my attention. As this tweet observes, in Wiley’s take on the biblical story, the head of Holofernes is that of a white woman.


Jo’Nella Queen, a self-styled poet and activist, offers this analysis of the painting:

This art piece “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” 2012, Kehinde Wiley, places Women of Color, specifically a Black woman in a position of power (and majesty). This is so important because of the racism and  sexism that Women of Color have historically and continue to face [sic] today. (Not to mention other WOC who face marginalization because of other facets of their identity; SES, Queerness, Ability, trauma(s) in addition to this- the list goes on).

A closer look at the expressions on the face of the executioner and the severed head appear to bear out this reading, which creates a radically different mood and sensibility from earlier works. Compare for yourself Wiley’s work with one by Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, appearing below it:

Detail from “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” 2012, by Kehinde Wiley
Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, ca. 1625, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts

Taken in this light, the whole affair smells of blaxploitation in its latter-day form, with Hollywood cranking out remakes of earlier films purely for the purpose of recasting the lead as black man.

Trending: Cartoon of the Day: Conjoined Bullies

A little more digging into the artist’s pedigree reveals his motive in creating the painting, which he describes in a New York magazine interview as “sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing.”

In the end, this is vintage Obama — a man so hung up on race and racial grievance that he had no qualms about inviting to the White House a rapper who “sang” about killing police. His artist of choice also has an affinity for “gangsta” rap, having made “regal portraits of rappers including Notorious B.I.G.,” who was killed in a drive-by shooting after partying with members of the Bloods and Crips.

It seems that Wiley has also seen fit to rip off Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” which he reconfigured as “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.”  You can see the two side-by-side, below:

Wiley Napoleon

I offer my own version of that painting which contains as its subject the black man Wiley should have chosen as his present-day Napoleon:

I call my masterpiece, “Napoleon Giving in to Another Bad Habit.”


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