Barack Obama portrait painted by gay artist, Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley

Portrait paintings of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were revealed Monday at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Kehinde Wiley, 40, who identifies as gay and was raised in South Los Angeles, painted Barack Obama sitting in a chair, elbows in his knees, leaning forward with an intense expression. The background, typical of a Wiley painting, is a riotous pattern of lush foliage.

“That’s pretty sharp,” Obama said with a grin at the unveiling that was live streamed.

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Amy Sherald, 44, of Baltimore, painted Michelle Obama.

Kehinde Wiley Barack Obama

Kehinde Wiley, left, and Amy Sherald were selected to paint the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery. Photos: Kehinde Wiley by Kwaku Alston; Amy Sherald courtesy Amy Sherald.

Kehinde Wiley

The paintings, like the presidency they honor, are a historic first. Wiley and Sherald — both already famous for their portraits of black Americans — are the first black painters to receive a presidential portrait commission from the museum.

First gay, black artist

Wiley is also the first gay black artist to paint a presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s painting exemplifies his trademark style.

Born to a Nigerian father and and an African-American mother, Wiley grew up in South Los Angeles. His interest in portraiture began during frequent visits to the city’s Huntington Library art gallery. “I remember looking at the powdered wigs, the pearls, and the lap dogs and all of the trappings of power—wanting in some way to master painting on that level, but just being a kid and wondering what it must feel like to be able to take colored paste with a hairy stick and coax things into being,” Wiley said in a 2016 lecture at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts according to

Portraits with hip-hop fashion

Over the course of his career, Wiley, whom Barack Obama selected, has frequently portrayed young black men wearing the latest in hip-hop, street fashion. Wiley’s rich, highly saturated color palette and his use of decorative patterns complement his realistic and expressive likenesses.

The theatrical poses and props Wiley assigns to his subjects make references to iconic portraits of powerful figures by Western artists.

Wiley has painted Ice T channeling Napoleon, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as a 17th century Dutch civic guard company.

Former President Barack Obama, right, looks at his official presidential portrait at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday. Artist Kehinde Wiley, left, painted the portrait. Photo: Screen grab from YouTube.

‘Doesn’t get any better’

“The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming,” Wiley said at the event. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

The National Portrait Gallery said Wiley and Sherald’s artistic skills have opened a new chapter in official portraiture.

New chapter

“Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald bring tremendous energy and empathy to their portraits, and we are excited to see how that translates to picturing the President and First Lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement last year. “In many respects, they are introducing a new chapter in official portraiture by combining the best of the past with pop culture, the hip-hop aesthetic of urban America and the personal stories of the artists themselves.”

National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery, a member of the Smithsonian Institution, has worked with outgoing presidents to commission a new portrait of each one since 1962.

The Obamas looked at the portfolios of more than 24 artists before deciding on Wiley and Sherald. Obama’s presidential portrait will hang in the hall of presidents, and the former first lady’s portrait will be placed in another gallery.

The public will be able to view both portraits starting Tuesday.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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