‘We must take ourselves to public institutions to look at art because there is something happening right now where Black and Brown and female voices are being allowed to participate in something that heretofore has been something that has been so ivory tower and exclusive.”
That’s artist Kehinde Wiley’s take on the change underfoot, comparing it to his own time growing up, seeing art of the landed gentry and aristocrats in powdered wigs and jewels — paintings he was drawn to but also felt removed from. Wiley, along with Amy Sherald, became the first Black artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint a President and First Lady: Barack and Michelle Obama.
The Obama Portraits exhibition opened at the Art Institute of Chicago on June 18. President Obama’s portrait is by Wiley and Michelle Obama’s by Sherald. The artists were chosen by their sitters. And while the 2018 paintings’ permanent home is the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington D.C., the artworks are on a national tour, with the first stop, at the request of President Obama, being the Art Institute of Chicago, which he and Michelle visited on their first date.
Here in Oak Park, meanwhile, a Kehinde Wiley oil on canvas hangs on a wall for all to see at the Main Library, part of an art collection meant to make visitors feel like they belong. It is the only Wiley work on permanent public display in the state, according to the artist’s website.
“The Oak Park Library’s permanent art collection is amazing and quite unique, especially for a library of our size,” said Executive Director David Seleb. “We have pieces of a caliber and by artists that some in our community might not have other opportunities to see, and here they are, viewable and accessible whenever the library is open. It’s special.”
Wiley, born in 1977, is known for taking classical art subject matter, such as nobility on horseback, and reimagining it with modern-day Black Americans. His models have included people from the streets of Harlem, New York. The Oak Park Public Library’s “Easter Realness #2” includes colorful Rococo-style scrollwork, which is a recurring image in Wiley’s paintings of the time, framing four figures seen from below, which has been compared to viewing cherubs on cathedral ceilings.
In an Art Institute talk, “A Virtual Conversation: The Obama Portraits — Featuring Artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald” on June 17, Wiley said, “I happen to be someone who spent his entire career painting portraits of people who happen to look like me, but also come from all parts of the world, underserved communities, by and large people who are minding their own business, trying to get to work. You tap them on the shoulder and you invite them to become subjects in a painting. And, most people say, ‘no,’ and are kind of weirded out by this notion of public engagement, ‘Who are you?’ ‘What is this picture?’”
When the new Main Library opened in October 2003, a fundraising gala and commemorative bricks raised money for an art fund. An art committee selected new works from local artists and others. The committee’s aim was to acquire art that was challenging, intriguing and enduring.
“Those who carefully selected our art collection almost 20 years ago, including our Wiley piece ‘Easter Realness #2,’ wanted all to be welcome, for all to see themselves and their lives reflected in the art, and to be uplifted and inspired by that,” Seleb said.
During the virtual conversation on the Obama Portraits, Wiley commented on the kind of paintings he creates: “I would posit this is more of a conceptual project or a social project. This has a reach that goes beyond an image on a wall. It points to how societies are formed, what we value within those societies and who’s allowed to shine within those walls.”
Seleb responded, “It’s powerful when you get to hear an artist such as Wiley talk about their work and art in that way. I think the Oak Park Library’s permanent art collection does exactly as Wiley describes. By including artists such as Wiley in the library’s collection, by presenting them in a venue and format where anyone is welcome to see and experience them, we are saying that Black voices and lives matter, that historically oppressed voices matter, that all are invited and welcomed into our spaces to learn, to grow or just to be in a way they might not be welcomed to do those things in other places or spaces.”
“Easter Realness #2” hangs on the third floor of the Main Library near the study rooms. It is mounted on the diagonal and is an impressive 9.75 square feet. It was purchased from the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago in 2004 for $16,000. The Oak Park Public Library regularly updates appraisals on their permanent collection and in late 2020, “the replacement cost for ‘Easter Realness #2’ was stated as $145,000,” according to Jeremy Andrykowski, library director of operations.
“Those who selected our permanent art collection for the new Main Library, a group that included community members and library staff members, were quite intentional about curating a collection to include Black artists and artists of color and to include emerging American artists,” said Seleb. “That included Kehinde Wiley at the time. What a vision! I do not think, however, that even they could have foreseen how important and prominent an artist Kehinde Wiley would become. Every time I look at Wiley’s piece hanging on our wall and think about its significance, it takes my breath away.”
And the Obama portraits hold their own special significance too.
“The new normal now includes two African-American artists who have created portraits of the President and First Lady and that now is part of the historical record,” Wiley said. “These are now the new oxygen we will have to breathe and there’s no going back from it. In the blast zone of the Obamas’ decision to make that happen, there will be a lot of winners. I think the winners are those young kids who get inspired by that, people who feel there is space in the conversation for them. Not because anyone went out of their way to point them out, but because of their sheer existence, the humble fact of their presence was being nodded to in a very big way.”
The Obama Portraits are at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago, through Aug. 15. More: artic.edu/how-to-visit-the-obama-portraits. View Wiley’s “Easter Realness #2” at the Main Library, 834 Lake St., Oak Park. More: oppl.org.