The likeness of the first Black President in U.S. history was painted by portraitist Kehinde Wiley, who is also African-American, and it is strikingly contemporary. As is the artist’s message: “Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”

It is not unusual in the light of such creative conviction, that the President is depicted not as a bureaucrat, but as a profoundly human, thoughtful being. He is posed seated, almost engulfed by dense greenery, amid flowers that all have symbolic meaning: African blue lilies for Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine for Hawaii, where Obama was born; and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, for the city where his political career began.

The portrait now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. next to that of his wife, Michelle Obama, whose image was painted by Amy Sherlad, who is also African-American.

But we in Montreal do not have to travel to the U.S. to get a taste of Kehinde Wiley’s impressive talent. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has acquired one of his paintings, and it is a must-see. Titled “Simeon the God Receiver”, it features a richly tattooed young Black man standing against the artist’s signature tightly-woven background tapestry, his body emerging from it, or perhaps fading into…

1- Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley

2 - Kehinde Wiley
(born in 1977), 
Simeon the God Receiver, 2015, oil on canvas, 
212 x 159.7 cm. 

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest, the Appel family fund in memory of Bram and Bluma Appel. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest