The Obama portraits: praise, criticism, and conspiracy theories

As the Obamas continue their legacy of breaking historic norms and ending stereotypes, it’s no surprise that their portraits, unveiled Monday, Feb. 12, in Washington D.C., were untraditional to say the least.

In addition to being the first African-American presidential portrait on display in the National Portrait Gallery, the painting itself will the first painted by an African-American artist.

In the days following the unveiling, positive and negative reactions have abounded as critics and the public alike search for hidden messages, controversy, and political statements. With such distinctive portraits, there is much to be found.

Mr. Obama

Former president Barack Obama’s portrait, the one that will hang with the other 43 paintings of past presidents, features him leaning forward in a chair with a serious look on his face… and that’s about where the similarity to other presidential portraits ends. His chair is somewhat suspended in midair, surrounded by a brightly-colored garden scene. His stern expression and stiff posture contrasts sharply with the soft flowery scene surrounding him.

The artist behind this work is Kehinde Wiley, known for his stylized paintings of young black people as recreations of traditional portraits. Wiley often uses his art as a critique of the lack of non-white figures throughout the history of art, which is exactly what drew Obama to him in the first place. “What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege,” Obama said at the ceremony.

While many have praised the portrait for its break from tradition and subtle messages, others have found reason to criticize, as well as speculate.

Wiley has drawn some controversy for a painting that portrays a black woman cutting off the head of a white woman. Some have said that the former president went a little too far with his unconventional choice of artist, and criticize him for being divisive rather than unifying.

In another twist on the garden background, some conservatives, like Sean Hannity, have seen a sexually pervasive theme.. On Twitter, Hannity claimed that there were “secret images of sperm” within the garden scene, and that the painting served as a sort of sexual innuendo. (The tweet was later deleted.)

Mrs. Obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s painting is just as unconventional and stylized as her husband’s. Amy Sherald, known for her portrayals of African-Americans doing everyday things, was commissioned to paint Mrs. Obama’s portrait. The finished work portrays Obama in a long, abstractly designed dress against a blue backdrop. Her hair flows around her shoulders, and the entire painting is in grayscale, making it less realistic and more stylized.

Yet the dress symbolizes much more than just the fashion of Mrs. Obama. The painted dress is based on a real dress designed by Michelle Smith under her company name, Milly. Obama has worn several Milly outfits and was involved in the decision to have the Milly dress in the portrait. Milly is also known for designing clothes meant to support equality movements and criticize President Trump. In addition, fashion experts have pointed to the more affordable cotton material of the dress as a foil to Melania Trump’s expensive, high-end fashion choices. It is unclear whether Obama hid this message in her portrait intentionally.

Lastly, many are saying that Obama’s portrait doesn’t look that much liker. Conservative Commentator Ben Shapiro compared her portrait to a completely abstract painting on Twitter, pointing out that Sherald appears to have gone more stylistic than realistic. That said, other critics have praised Sherald for capturing the essence of Obama’s character, and making her portrait more universal and relatable through her stylistic choices.

One thing’s for certain, the Obamas are masters of sending subtle messages through creative outlets, and the uniqueness of their portraits created space for a discussion of issues they care about that may not have happened with more traditional renditions.


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5 reasons that current US immigration policy actually strengthens gangs

1. Deportations encourage transnational gang networks

Do you know where the most feared transnational gang, Mara Salvatura or MS-13, started? It wasn’t El Salvador, it was LA. Salvadoran immigrants fleeing from the brutal civil war and US-backed dictatorships in El Salvador formed street gangs to contend with the Mexican gang, “M.” Due to the deportation policies of Ronald Reagan (similar to those of President Trump) in the 1990s, gang members were deported back to their “home” countries in Central America—where they brought their gang membership with them. Once established back in Central America, MS-13 members were able to network with those still in the US to create an international drug trading network, and eventually became a transnational organization running between the “Northern Triangle of Death” (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) and the US.

When gang members are deported to other countries, it doesn’t kill their gang membership—it spreads it into a new territory. El Salvador is now ranked as one of the most violent countries in the world because of the gang problem created by deportations from the US.

2. Receiving countries are ill-equipped to handle the influx of gang members

Central America is considerably less stable than the US. The two rival gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 run the country of El Salvador much more than its actual government does. By deporting gang members to these places, the violence is intensified, and the developing countries do not have the power or resources to deal with it. Prisons are overflowing and inhuman, and more arrive by the day. This fact is what created the transnational gang problem in the first place, violent gang members were deported back to a country they had fled from, still ravaged by the civil war that had torn it apart.

3. Gang recruitment becomes really easy

When any deportee arrives back in Central America or Mexico, they don’t have the means to provide for themselves, especially if they’ve lived in the US for most of their lives. This is the breeding ground for gang membership—desperation and lack of options. Most kids that grow up to become gang members were living on the streets, alone and ignored by society, before the gang picked them up. Within the gangs, they are provided for and given a strong sense of belonging within their community.

In addition, if a deportee arrives back into El Salvador after having tried to escape gang violence in the US, they face retaliation from the gang for their disloyalty. These individuals fear for both their lives, as well as the lives of their families..

4. Mass prisons have proven to help gangs commit more crimes

It is statistically proven that gangs become stronger when all their leadership goes to prison together. Locking away a gang member does nothing—their structure is too flexible and hard to control, and putting them all in the same place allow for reorganization of leadership. Gang leaders simply make hit calls from behind bars, still getting everything done without too much inconvenience. They have a safety and freedom in prison that they don’t even have on the streets.

When gang members arrive in Central America, especially El Salvador, the government has no choice but to stick them in these prisons that become breeding grounds for even more violence.

5. Violence easily boomerangs right back into the US

Gang violence began in the US, what gives us the right to force our problems onto other countries? And what makes us think those issues won’t boomerang right back to our homes?

We are repeating history with our current policies. We think that getting gang members out of the country will fix the problem, but it’s a transnational organization. It doesn’t matter where the individuals are, gangs will continue to, according to the MS-13 motto, “Kill, rape, control.”

This is our problem too. We created it, and we have a responsibility to aid in ending it.