A Smithsonian-sponsored artist finally revealed former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraits this week. Although both portraits demonstrated significant talent, it isn’t the portraits people are talking about – it’s the artist’s history. Artist Kehinde Wiley’s provoking previous works include at least two paintings that depict black people beheading white people amongst a light-hearted floral background. This has many people questioning why such an artist would be commissioned to paint such a prominent American political figure.
• Wiley is known for his use of color, florals, and strong evocative themes. Much of his work includes racial overtones. Some have accused the artist of going for “shock value” and little else.
• The two beheading paintings raising questions were allegedly inspired by the Book of Judith. This renaissance-era story details a woman who seduces and beheads a famous general before he can enact war on her land.
• “Judith,” as a muse, is often looked upon as a hero sanctioned by God. She is usually depicted as fighting off evil or fighting Satan directly.
• Wiley has also created works directly scorning Western culture as a whole. This includes a series of paintings of street culture, including famous rapper Kanye West.
• Others are raising questions about Wiley’s contribution not only because of the topic, but also because he outsources some of his work to China. The artist has admitted to having Chinese laborers paint some of his works, but refuses to admit how much of the work he outsources.
• Despite the misconception that these paintings were commissioned by the White House, the works of art were not official. Instead, they were commissioned by the Smithsonian, specifically. The White House had no role in the creation, contributions, or the theme.