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On February 12, 2018, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portraits of Former President Barack Obama and Former First Lady Michelle Obama, by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively. A pair of portraits that most already knew would be markedly different from those of their 43-odd predecessors stood out even more as an unflinchingly modern pair of images, with the former president almost entirely enveloped by green foliage sprinkled with flowers, and Mrs. Obama depicted with grayscale-toned skin against a robin’s-egg-blue background.
The inevitable deluge of articles and thinkpieces came soon after the unveiling—if you want commentary on Wiley and Sherald’s portraits, a quick Google will give you more than enough options to choose from. I knew I wanted to write an episode about Kehinde Wiley for this podcast, but it just didn’t seem quite right to try and break down the significance of his portrait of Obama so soon after its unveiling. So I’m looking a bit further back in Wiley’s body of work, at a piece that is perhaps a better example of the character of Wiley’s paintings in general, and is unburdened by the notoriety of its subject. Morpheus, from 2008, is part of Wiley’s Down series, which was most recently exhibited in his A New Republic retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. Many of the commentaries on Wiley’s work focus on his biography—how his life informs what he creates as an artist. While his motivations and process certainly provide a fascinating lens through which to view his work, I’m choosing to try and pull back from that and instead consider Morpheus on its own terms as much as possible. Morpheus, like most of Wiley’s work, explicitly draws on other works from throughout Western art history. What are those precedents, and how do they affect how we look at the work? What currently relevant issues does Morpheus seem to address or confront? Why is Wiley’s work important or unimportant at this particular moment in time, or, to put it another way: Wiley’s a popular artist. So what?
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A description of Kehinde Wiley’s Morpheus, 2008:
A young black man reclines on a white sheet. His right arm is folded under his head and his left arm is folded across his chest. He has an image of Christ carrying the cross tattooed on his left shoulder. He is looking at the viewer. His body twists so that his chest is contained behind his left arm, while his hips are more upward-facing. His legs are parted at the knee, allowing his right foot to rest in front of the sheet while his left foot rests on top of it. He wears a bright blue snapback cap with a yellow brim and red lettering. He also wears a maroon tank top, a gold chain around his neck, black sneakers, and blue pants that are slung low around his hips, revealing the waistband of red and blue plaid boxers. The man and the sheet are set in front of a stylized background with golden leaves and vines with flowers of many colors and kinds. Some of the vines are in front of the man and the sheet on which he lies, growing upward across the sheet towards the young man. Everything is very clearly defined and brightly lit, and the colors are vibrant.
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I feel obligated to preface this discussion with the fact that I’m white—I say this so that listeners, who are only hearing my voice and not seeing my face, will understand that my opinions of, responses to, and framing of Wiley’s works come from a place of cultural privilege. I am unable to view these works from a black perspective, and the significance of my commentary and analysis here is therefore limited, since I am unable to fully address, with all the nuance of personal knowledge, how Wiley’s portraits construct black identity, which is a core element of their being.
I am, however, able to offer a bit of cultural, theoretical, and art historical context, and thus perhaps provide a slightly different perspective than you might get from a non-art historian’s commentary. Wiley is often dubbed “the hip-hop portraitist,” which is a pretty clickbaity and patronizing title that inaccurately encompasses what he does. His focus is not so much on depicting hip-hop culture as it is on depicting people of color, some of whom dress according to a hip-hop aesthetic, in an artistic mode that is otherwise overwhelmingly populated by white bodies. Many of the poses of Wiley’s subjects are directly drawn from European artworks, pulling inspiration from artists like Holbein, Jacques-Louis David, Manet, and more. Morpheus, in particular, is based on French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1777 work of the same name, which is a marble sculpture less than two feet high. According to the catalogue for the exhibition where Houdon first exhibited a plaster version of Morpheus in 1771, Morpheus is “one of the children of the god of Sleep and his agent. He is the most skillful of all the [gods of] dreams in taking on the manner, the appearance, and the voice of those he wants to represent.” Wiley copies the pose from Houdon’s work exactly, omitting the original Morpheus’s wings, and allowing his subject to keep his eyes open and his face turned towards the viewer rather than sleep with his face turned down as in Houdon’s original. Where Houdon’s sculpture is only a little over a foot high by two feet wide, Wiley’s new Morpheus is 10 x 15 feet, in keeping with the monumental size of other works in the same series. Thus, Wiley’s Morpheus transforms its original 18th century reference in multiple ways, not just culturally and racially, but also in terms of size, medium, and key conceptual elements.
If I had not known that Wiley’s painting was derived from a masculine sculpture, my art historical knowledge would have immediately associated it with a quite different European artistic tradition: that of the reclining goddess. For hundreds of years, European artists were very into depicting women naked and lying down on beds or couches, many of them in similar poses to that of the young man Wiley depicts. Often these women are identified as depictions of or allusions to Venus, the Roman goddess of love. The pose of the new Morpheus is somewhat comparable to that of the Sleeping Venus by Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione. Both figures position their right arm under their head and recline on drapery. Both incorporate the motif of sleep: Morpheus through its reference, and Venus through its depiction. But where the new Morpheus depicts a young black man, Venus depicts a nude white woman. Where Morpheus remains awake, lying amidst a riot of colorful flowers whose vines twist toward him and invade his space, Venus slumbers peacefully, alone amid a wide open countryside, with nothing to bother her or hem her in. Both of them are put on display to some degree, but Morpheus complicates that display by responding to the viewer’s gaze with a gaze of his own, and by the fact that the winding vines seem ready to prevent us from looking at him. More often than not, when we talk about gazes in art history, we’re talking specifically about the male gaze. This idea comes from feminist film theory—it’s the idea that films are conceived, at least visually, from an overwhelmingly male perspective. They tend to appeal to a heterosexual male way of looking and to heterosexual male preferences. Giorgione’s Venus is absolutely painted to appeal to the gaze of a presumably male viewer. Her body is placed on display while she is asleep, unable to confront the viewer by looking at them and asserting her own status as a thinking subject instead of a sexual object.
Morpheus, conversely, challenges and complicates the notion of the viewer of art as presumed-to-be white heterosexual man. Morpheus’s body is posed in a similarly relaxed, sinuous fashion, but it is clearly a masculine body, and therefore (we assume) not attractive to the heterosexual male viewer. If Morpheus is a sexual object—and I am not certain he is—he is certainly not tailored to straight male consumption. Some critics have framed Wiley’s depictions of young black men as expressive of his own sexuality, and Wiley himself has addressed this, denying an explicit sexual exchange but acknowledging that, quote, “there’s a sense in which male beauty is being negotiated.” With Morpheus, certainly, there is plenty of potential for some sexually charged gazing that goes beyond mere appreciation of male beauty. In the catalogue for his A New Republic retrospective, Wiley says of the Down series, quote: “Historically, we’re used to female figures in repose…I think we’re almost trained to read the reclining figure in a painting within an erotic state. There’s a type of powerlessness with regard to being down off your feet, and in that sense, that power exchange can be codified as an erotic moment.” End quote. Wiley acknowledges that there is something erotic at play here, but I think part of what disturbs the knee-jerk reading of Morpheus as a sex object is Morpheus’s own steady gaze back at the viewer. This unflirtatious acknowledgment that he is being looked at differs from the vast majority of reclining goddess imagery, in which responding gazes are often either absent or coy. A major exception to this, and perhaps interesting for comparison to Morpheus because it includes a black figure, is Edouard Manet’s 1865 painting Olympia, which depicts a courtesan reclining naked on a bed, frankly gazing at the viewer, while her black servant brings her flowers from an admirer and a black cat stands at the foot of her bed. Olympia’s frank return of the viewer’s gaze, as well as her obvious profession, were scandalous at the time of the painting’s exhibition, and numerous misogynist and racist critiques were targeted at both Olympia and her black maid. If we think about Morpheus as to some extent a transformation and subversion of the reclining goddess trope, when we relate it specifically to Olympia it is also a transformation of focus and subjecthood. While in Olympia the white woman is front and center, riffing on a centuries-old visual tradition while her black servant serves largely to establish Olympia’s profession and the modern setting, in Morpheus the young black man is the focus and sole subject. Such a shift is not purely representative of cultural progress when it comes to race. Olympia was a modern twist on an old picture type that challenged why exactly that original type worked—it worked because the viewer never had to be confronted with the real implications of his sexually charged gaze. Before Olympia, the male audience was never asked to question their visual enjoyment of the reclining woman or their position in relation to her. Similarly, Morpheus is a twenty-first century twist on a number of artistic traditions that had not been deconstructed and confronted in quite this way before. What happens, Morpheus asks, when we replace an idealized white body with a realistic and culturally specific black body? And—keeping in mind the size of this work—what happens when we make that body and the space it inhabits inescapably huge? When we are asked to look at a black male subject, rather than a white female subject, how does the way we look change?
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Morpheus, like a great deal of Wiley’s work, engages with cultural depictions of black masculinity, specifically African-American masculinity. Intersectional feminist theorist bell hooks’s 2004 book We Real Cool is an excellent starting point for those interested in learning more about the nuances of the convergence of gender and race. In it, hooks discusses the ways in which black masculinity is constrained by and responds to the dominant systems and ideologies that consistently subjugate people of color. She traces the conditioning of black men to buy into a racist, sexist, violent system throughout the history of the black diaspora in the United States, from the structures of slavery, through black liberation movements of the twentieth century, to quote-unquote “gangsta” culture. In this excerpt from her chapter on black male violence, hooks discusses the stereotypical portrayal of the black man as violent in a variety of media:
“Read any article or book on black masculinity and it will convey the message that black men are violent. The authors may or may not agree that black male violence is justified, or a response to being victimized by racism but they do agree that black men as a group are out of control, wild, uncivilized, natural-born predators…Indeed, many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racist sexist stereotypes attributed to black males are traits that are today considered to be the mark of psychopaths…Black males who reject racist sexist stereotypes must still cope with the imposition onto them of qualities that have no relation to their lived experience. For example: a black male who is scrupulously honest may have to cope with co-workers treating him suspiciously because they see all black males as con artists in hiding. Nonviolent black males daily face a world that sees them as violent. Black men who are not sexual harassers or rapists confront a public that relates to them as though this is who they are underneath the skin. In actuality many black males explain their decision to become the ‘beast’ as a surrender to realities they cannot change…it really has been mainstream white culture that both requires and rewards black men for acting like brutal psychopaths…”
The pervasive perception of black men as violent is a stereotype we in the United States particularly associate with urban black youth and hip-hop culture. Morpheus displays some of that hip-hop aesthetic, between the gold chain, low-slung pants, and precariously perched snapback. But his pose and surroundings are entirely without the machismo that often accompanies popular images of black men with these aesthetic elements. He appears vulnerable and almost androgynous, a version of black manhood that is very rarely seen or depicted without homophobic implications. Morpheus is not just a subversion of traditional Western artistic tropes—it is also a subversion of the dominant narrative of what constitutes black masculinity. A couple of comments by Wiley, quoted in the catalogue introduction for A New Republic, demonstrate how integral these ideas are to Wiley’s artistic intent. The first is a quote from Wiley discussing a mugshot found on the street as a source of inspiration, the second a discussion of the philosophy behind the Down series of which Morpheus is a part:
“…I began thinking about this mugshot itself as portraiture in a very perverse sense…And I began to start thinking about a lot of the portraiture that I had enjoyed from the eighteenth century and noticed the difference between the two: how one is positioned in a way that is totally outside their control, shut down and relegated to those in power, whereas those in the other were positioning themselves in states of stately grace and self-possession.”
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“The series title Down implies both a state of being, as in down-and-out or downtrodden, and a directional orientation. Wiley described the series as ‘an answer to the negative views of young black men in American society.’ Elsewhere he observed that the series concentrates ‘on a genre of painting that has to do with honoring leaders and religious figures in moments of death and also repose,’ noting the sense of vulnerability in powerful leaders that ‘undergirds’ the appearance of confidence and strength.”
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Wiley is interested in questioning and reframing traditional power structures, specifically power structures that affect the intersection of race and gender. In the case of Morpheus, the violent version of masculinity that hooks identifies as a presumed expression of black male power is absent. It is replaced by gentle, androgynous, sexually uncertain benevolence, casting Morpheus in a vulnerable light. It is full of neither “stately grace and self-possession” nor the sense that this positioning is entirely out of the subject’s control—indeed, explanations of Wiley’s process highlight how he and his street-cast subjects work together to choose works of art to emulate. Instead, because the image of Morpheus does not fit into a societally predetermined role, it is imbued with a troublesome ambiguity that becomes even more sharply felt when one considers some of the pivotal cultural moments that have occurred since its initial exhibition.
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Morpheus, as a work, and indeed Wiley as an artist, emerged at a particularly pivotal time for America and for African Americans specifically. 2008, when Morpheus was completed, was the year when Barack Obama won the presidency. Wiley claims, quote: “When I was thinking about Down, I had no idea that Obama would be a frontrunner, no idea that the American presence in Iraq would be just as mired as it is, no idea of the massive downturn economically…Paintings are situational. They are read in the times in which they occur.” End quote. But paintings also continue existing long after their initial creation and exhibition—they continue to occur. In the ten years between the Down series’s exhibition and the recording of this podcast, there have been huge shifts in the visibility of issues and problems affecting black people in America, as well as the visibility and power of movements focused on racial and gender equality worldwide. Since 2008 America has added many names to its long list of black lives lost as a result of oppressive systems, names now frequently invoked in the crusade for justice and racial equality: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray are just a few among them. Now, in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, we can’t help but read Wiley’s work in a very different way than how we might have read it ten years ago. And Wiley’s rocketlike ascent in pop culture during that time has also opened the floor for critiques of his work and his process of creation.
While for many viewers Wiley’s work is inventive and a clever alteration of the art historical canon, over time his art has been criticized for being a bit…same-y. In 2012, when Wiley created a series of paintings in his characteristic figure-on-ornate-background style as part of his World Stage project, this time highlighting subjects from Israel, art critic Jillian Steinhauer wrote this of its exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York:
“…The biggest problem with ‘The World Stage: Israel’ is conceptual rather than formal. When Wiley first appeared in the art world, recasting young black men from the street as emperors and religious icons, the message was clear. At the Jewish Museum, the intention is murkier…African American men have a history vastly different from that of Ethiopian- and Arab Israeli men. Is Wiley attempting to call attention to the racism and discrimination that his current subjects face? If so, we need more information—wall text or an artist’s statement, and certainly not the glossing-over the issue gets in the catalog.”
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By 2012, Wiley’s work was already recognizable as somewhat formulaic. By 2015, when his Brooklyn Museum retrospective was exhibited, a Blouin ArtInfo review critiqued it as “more safe than subversive” and noted that it “doesn’t disturb our way of seeing the world so much as feed our contemporary taste for promiscuous juxtaposition and nobrow pastiche.” For a lot of viewers, the more Wiley paints in this distinctive style that has brought him so much success, the more commercially motivated his work appears to be. Publicity and commercialism certainly seem to have been appealing to Wiley as early as 2005, when Vh1’s Hip Hop Honors commissioned Wiley to paint some of the honorees, including LL Cool J, whose portrait is now on view in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Adding to the sense of Wiley’s art as commercially focused is the fact that he makes heavy use of assistants to paint the backgrounds of his works, which, while it once was very common for European painters to do so back in the day, nevertheless rubs some people the wrong way in terms of their conception of what artists are supposed to be in the modern world. The convergence of the artistic and the commercial is bothersome to many, hence the disdain for contemporary artists who wholeheartedly embrace, and even court, the almighty dollar. My touchstone example for the commercially motivated artist is Jeff Koons, whose works are physically created entirely by assistants, and who recently made headlines for quote-unquote “gifting” the French a sculpture in honor of the victims of the 2015 Paris terrorist attack, which subsequently turned out to require the use of taxpayer Euros in order to enable its installation. Judged on a Koonsian scale, then, Wiley is nowhere near as money-motivated as he could be.
Wiley’s embrace of branding, publicity, and the commercial aspects of the art world doesn’t seem to have eroded his popularity very much overall. With the unveiling of his portrait of President Obama he’s more of a household name than ever before. But that doesn’t necessarily make his art entirely accessible to the average person, and it doesn’t resolve the questions surrounding his aesthetic formula and what to do with his work now that the novelty of that formula has worn off. As a contemporary artist still producing work, people are constantly scrutinizing and reassessing Wiley’s paintings, so those questions won’t necessarily be resolved any time soon. During the writing of this very podcast, for instance, an article by art critic Seph Rodney was posted on the NBC News website, highlighting audiences’ confusion surrounding Wiley’s portrait of Obama and subsequent outrage at the discovery by some of an earlier series of works by Wiley in which black subjects hold the severed heads of white people. The Obama portrait, and contemporary portraiture in general, Rodney argues, cannot be taken as a “simple, traditional representation and affirmation of strength, grace under pressure and valor” like other presidential portraits. It is more complex, he contends, and it requires a specific knowledge-set in order to understand. In my opinion, however, confusion is a thoroughly valid response to an artwork. Not all artwork has to make sense to all viewers, and there should be no intellectual boxes to check in order to effectively view a work of art, no matter how conceptual. Ideally, the key question to ask when one finds a work confusing, as Rodney hints at the very end of his piece, is why a work confuses you, why it catches you off guard. Someone who’s looked at a great number of Wiley’s works will not likely be taken aback at the appearance of his portrait of Obama, its lush floral background, or the lack of a clear ground for the former President and his chair to rest on. The approach used in the Obama portrait is largely characteristic of Wiley’s other work. It’s also noticeably different from other Wiley works in that its floral background is realistic, rather than ornamental, and its subject is an important political figure, not an anonymous subject picked off the street, their name erased by the name of the work whose pose they copy.
As others have argued, it’s not really possible or useful to make pronouncements in regards to Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits at this time, whether pronouncements of quality, conceptual depth, or the degree to which they evoke their subjects. Art benefits from a little temporal distance, even though, in Wiley’s own words, “it is read in the times in which it occurs.” Morpheus, especially, benefits from the ten years since its first exhibition because the notion of a black man in a prone state carries a different kind of weight in mainstream American culture than it did in 2008—or perhaps it doesn’t. The relative peacefulness of Morpheus’s repose, as opposed to the violent repose of injury and death we have seen too many black men experience in ever-higher-profile incidents, brings with it a degree of relief, but also some uneasiness, as we can’t help but be reminded that Morpheus’s rest occurs in an imaginary space; it might not be possible in real life. And even that imaginary space is somewhat tense, unstable, with little to no sense of depth or firm ground, and vines climbing up the sides of Morpheus’s makeshift bed in a sort of predatory way. Even those things that seem to give Morpheus comfort are not without their dangers and drawbacks.
Morpheus may not be Wiley’s best known work—certainly not since the Obama commission—but it contains many of the same features as the Obama portrait, and prompts some of the same questions that so confused viewers who reacted to the presidential portrait unveiling. Questions of identity, of race and gender, of class, of history and legacy. Questions of commercialism, publicity, and the types of value bestowed upon a given artwork. None of these questions have easy answers, or can even necessarily be reduced to a single sentence each. I personally really like Wiley’s work: it’s vibrant, it’s beautiful, it draws upon an artistic tradition I love but also highlights the problems with that tradition. I also empathize with and understand some of the frustrations people have with Wiley’s work: it’s occasionally commercially opportunistic, it’s become somewhat repetitive…I even agree, in the case of some specific works, that the skin tones he depicts can sometimes look flat and plastic rather than luminous, rich, and real. As contemporary artists go, Wiley has a lot of career left and a lot of artworks in his future. Who knows what type of art he’ll explore in the years to come? Who knows how long he’ll adhere to his current mode? Just as the viewing of individual artworks benefits from a little extra time, so does the assessment of artists themselves.
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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, including links to images and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. You can also now subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. Go ahead and rate and review us there, too—it helps us reach more people and gets us closer to truly fulfilling the goal of making this as accessible to as many people as possible. Follow us on Twitter at arthistory4all—that’s art history, number 4, all—for hints about upcoming episode topics and other fun art stuff.
This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast feed so you won’t miss future episodes, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.
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Extra Music credits:
“Space (Full)” by Andy G. Cohen (via freemusicarchive.org) Licensed Under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
“Fresh Air” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
“Rotisserie Graveyard” by Doctor Turtle (via freemusicarchive.org) Licensed Under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
 Anne L. Poulet, Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, National Gallery of Art catalogue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 91.
 For the origin of this term, see Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, No. 3, October 1975, 6-18.
 Wiley, quoted by Eugenie Tsai, Introduction to Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, Brooklyn Museum Catalogue (New York: DelMonico Books, 2015), 15.
 Wiley, quoted by David J. Getsy, “Laying it Down: Heroic Reclining Men and other Tactical Inversions,” in Tsai, 86.
 bell hooks, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (New York: Routledge, 2004), 47-49.
 Wiley, quoted by Tsai, 13.
 Tsai, 17.
 Tsai, 17.
 Jillian Steinhauer, “Kehinde Wiley Paints Israelis in Color,” Forward, March 14, 2012, https://forward.com/culture/152951/kehinde-wiley-paints-israelis-in-color/.
 Chloe Wyma, “Tame of Thrones: Kehinde Wiley Plays it Safe at the Brooklyn Museum,” Blouin ArtInfo, March 10, 2015, http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1109478/tame-of-thrones-kehinde-wiley-plays-it-safe-at-the-brooklyn.
 “Now on View: LL Cool J by Kehinde Wiley,” National Portrait Gallery, November 19, 2009, http://npg.si.edu/blog/now-on-view-ll-cool-j-kehinde-wiley.
 Deborah Solomon, “Kehinde Wiley Puts a Classical Spin on His Contemporary Subjects,” The New York Times, January 28, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/arts/design/kehinde-wiley-puts-a-classical-spin-on-his-contemporary-subjects.html?mtrref=undefined&gwh=A7889C174826266380269BC14A80A6B1&gwt=pay.
 Agency France-Presse, “Critics of Jeff Koons’ floral tribute to Paris victims raise a stink,” The Guardian, January 22, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/22/critics-of-jeff-koons-floral-tribute-to-paris-victims-raise-a-stink.
 Seph Rodney, “Kehinde Wiley’s Obama portrait proves Americans struggle to engage with art,” NBC News, February 18, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/kehinde-wiley-s-obama-portrait-controversy-shows-americans-don-t-ncna849156.
 Chiquita Paschal, “It’s OK to Feel Ambivalent About Michelle Obama’s Official Portrait,” Hyperallergic, February 15, 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/427123/ambivalence-amy-sherald-michelle-obama-portrait/.