November 20, 2023
In 2018, when their portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were thrust into the spotlight. The portraits were formally installed in the White House in 2022, when filmmaker Christine Turner’s documentary short, “Paint & Pitchfork,” also debuted on The New Yorker.
Turner was approached by LACMA to profile the renowned American artists, giving them “the same reverence, dignity, and respect” that they afford their own sitters. In the short film, Sherald and Wiley discuss their first interactions with art and what compelled them to paint people.
Both artists have dedicated their practices to reframing Western European portraiture traditions that have historically excluded representations of Black people. For Sherald, this is a matter of portraying Black figures during pastimes and everyday scenes, expressing comfort, leisure, and joy (previously).
In the film, Sherald says, “A question that I’ve been asked often is, will you ever paint anybody other than Black people? And my answer is, no, I won’t. Because the image of whiteness has been perpetuated beautifully throughout history, so you don’t really need my help. Like I’m here to paint my own ideal and to represent that in the world. And if I can’t do that, then something is deeply wrong.”
For Wiley, painting involves examining the symbolism of power and prestige of Grand Manner portraiture (previously), positioning Black figures on horseback, wielding staffs, and standing in front of ornate decor. “Portraiture is about the resistance of death. But painting is also about the style of living that you want to live,” he says. In a later segment, he shares that his approach to painting is two things at the same time: “There’s the desire for acceptability. And then there’s the desire for revolution. I’m carrying both paint and pitchfork.”
Learn more about Christine Turner’s work on her website. And if you haven’t yet, check out our interview with Amy Sherald from earlier this year.
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