Wiley and Sherald are the first black artists hired by the museum to paint a president and first lady. The works will be unveiled and incorporated into its collection in 2018.
Both artists are celebrated for their mythic and buoyant depictions of black subjects. Wiley, who is 40 years old and based in New York, is known for painting contemporary male subjects in a style reminiscent of Old Masters portraiture, remixed.
Dressed in modern-day T-shirts and sneakers, baseball caps and tattoos, Wiley’s subjects are immortalized in regal poses of kings and saints, rendered against a vibrant, textile backdrop. The depictions juxtapose traditional notions of (mostly white) nobility with modern representations of power, swagger and ego.
“So much of my work has not been fully investigated,” Wiley said in an earlier interview with HuffPost. “Many people see my early work simply as portraits of black and brown people. Really, it’s an investigation of how we see those people and how they have been perceived over time. The performance of black American identity feels very different from actually living in a black body. There’s a dissonance between inside and outside.”
Wiley’s most recent series features prominent contemporary black artists assuming the roles of various “trickster” figures throughout mythology.
Sherald, 44, works in Baltimore and paints black subjects who exist somewhere between reality and fiction; the artist describes her works as “fairytales.” The whimsical paintings depict young women in sundresses sipping tea and young men in button-up shirts holding bunches of balloons, fanciful characters absent from the mainstream narrative of black history.
“Why can’t I make up my own characters and paint the people I want to see in the world?” she asked in an interview with HuffPost. “I’m depicting the many people who existed in history but whose presence was never documented.”
Sherald paints her subjects’ flesh a charcoal grey ― alluding to their blackness while liberating them from the limitations of real life. The color, made from a combination of black and Naples yellow, ushers Sherald’s characters outside the realm of history into that of the boundless imagination.
“We get the same stories of who we are ― stories filled with pain, oppression and struggle,” she said. “But there are other sides to black lives that are not often represented. I’m painting these people.”
During their time in office, Barack and Michelle Obama brought the work of black artists to the White House’s hallowed walls. Their contributions include works by abstract expressionist Alma Thomas, folk artist William H. Johnson and conceptual artist Glenn Ligon.
The Obamas will continue to support the arts beyond their term through their recently announced Obama Foundation Fellowship, which will champion emerging artists ― as well as organizers, creators, educators, entrepreneurs, and journalists ― at a turning point in their careers.