An Examination of Barack Obama’s Portrait

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Chicago Sun Times Andrew Harnik/AP photo
Former President Barack Obama, left, speaks at the unveiling ceremony for the Obama's official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington. Obama's portrait was painted by Artist Kehinde Wiley. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Barack Obama sits in an ornate wooden chair amidst a sea of vines and flowers. He looks frail, much unlike the actual man we remember holding office just a little over a year ago. At first glance, this is not the Obama we remember. Something is off. This portrait is perhaps more lifelike than the man ever was in the flesh.

The vines tell a story. It’s difficult to determine where the ground ends and the wall of greenery begins. This illusory setting is perfect. These vines are fully alive, well groomed, and lush. It’s the exact setting that might come to mind when considering that it was the election of Barack Obama that broke barriers, placing the first African American in an office historically held only by white men. America was a torn nation, having just put 8 years of unnecessary and highly-publicized foreign wars under its belt, and surviving a lax response to a devastating hurricane, and the collapse of the World Trade Center. For many, hope was all they had. Promises of change had never been so appealing. And when these promises were voted in, the national attitude changed immediately. The greenery is something different; something new, something to focus on. It draws attention by detail. Of all the elements in this portrait, the greenery is the most fitting.

But the man himself looks slightly off. He doesn’t fit into the portrait at all. Notice the dark, blank stare. The look of a man hiding something. Very fitting for a man responsible for so much death around the world. In the center of a garden full of life sits a merchant of death, clad casually in black. The offsetting presence of Obama changes the setting entirely. In his time, very little was said about the countries he had bombed, the civilians he eradicated, or the orphaned children who would inevitably grow up to seek revenge against their oppressors in the West. We pretended these things weren’t happening, because they were flies in an otherwise premium ointment. Notice also that among the wall of shrubs, there are very few flowers. Just a distracting wall of life blocking all else out of view. All of the good feelings surrounding him carry very little substance.

There is an unusual lack of material in the settings. A man, his chair, and a curtain of leaves are the only things to make an appearance here. And in reality, that it all there ever was. Obama was exempt from the scrutiny of his peers. To tell the story of Barack Obama, Barack Obama is the only image required. He spent his days in the White House as nothing more than an image. The reality of his presence there was less interesting than the actual tales the absent walls of the White House would tell. He is not even in his office. His title was often arbitrary compared to the messianic image generally portrayed of him. He is surrounded by nothing but a green veil. He is remembered differently than his predecessors, all portrayed as bureaucrats in a bureaucratic landscape of bureaucracy.

Much could be said about the soulless look in his face, but the blank stare says more than words could manage. The illusion of a living garden of hope and change was constructed from a wall of weeds, blocking out the view of the blood stained destruction that makes for a much less flattering portrait. Perhaps this is the Obama we’ll always remember; history tends to be kind to the victor. We couldn’t have asked for a more accurate setting.

Featured image: Chicago Sun Times Andrew Harnik/AP photo

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Nathaniel Owen is the Chairman and co-founder of Being Libertarian. He is a writer, musician, homeschooling advocate, and libertarian, and typically addresses issues from an economic point of view. Nathaniel is a member of the Goldwater Institute, a Friend of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, and has been a member of the Libertarian Party since 2012.