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President Obama's speech at the portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

To watch the video and read the interactive transcript, see here.

Speakers

DS — David Skorton

BO — Barack Obama

KW — Kehinde Wiley

MO — Michelle Obama

Transcript

DS: Please join me in inviting President Barack Obama and to unveil the portrait.

BO: Well, good morning everybody. It is wonderful to see all of you. How about that? That’s pretty sharp.

It is my great honor to be here and I want to thank Secretary Skorton and Kim for your outstanding leadership as a couple of the crown jewels of American life and your extraordinary stewardship. I want to thank everybody who was here. Michelle and I are so grateful for the friends and family and former staff and current staff who have taken the time to be here and honor us in this way and soak in the extraordinary art that we’re seeing here. It means so much to us and I hope you’re aware of that. We miss you guys. We miss you guys and we miss the way those who worked with us on this incredible journey carried yourselves and worked so hard to make this country a better place.

BO: Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm that hotness of the woman that I love. Special shout out to my man, Joe Biden. An even more special shout out to my mother-in-law, who, in addition to providing the hotness genes also has been such an extraordinary rock and foundation stone for our family and we are so, so grateful to her. We love her so much.

BO: Like Michelle, I have never had a portrait done of myself. The Hope Poster by Shep was cool, but I didn’t sit for it. Nobody in my family tree, as far as I can tell, had a portrait done. I do have my high school yearbook picture, which is no great shakes, and so, when I heard that this was part of the tradition, I didn’t quite know what to do. Michelle and I were somewhat confused. We were lucky to have some extraordinary friends and people with exquisite taste. Bill Allman, Thelma Golden, and Michael Smith, who gave us the assist and helped us to consider a whole range of artists and we had an immediate connection with the two artists that are sitting here today.

BO: I think it’s fair to say that Kehinde and I bonded, maybe not in the same way, the soul sister girl thing. We shook hands, we were, yeah, we had a nice conversation. He and I make different sartorial decisions, but what we did find was that we had certain things in common. Both of us had American mothers who raised us with extraordinary love and support, both of us had African fathers who had been absent from our lives and, in some ways, our journeys involved searching for them and figuring out what that meant. I ended up writing about that journey and channeling it into the work that I did because I cannot paint. I’m sure that Kehinde’s journey reflected some of those feelings in his art.

BO: But 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 and the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them on a grand stage on a grand scale and force us to look and see them in ways that, so often, they were not. The people that Michelle referred to, people in our families, people who helped to build this country, people who helped to build this capital, people who, to this day, are making sure that this place is clean at night and serving food and taking out the garbage and doing all the other stuff that makes this country work, so often, out of sight and out of mind. Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform and said they belonged at the center of American life and that was something that moved me deeply because, in my small way, that’s part of what I believe politics should be about is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up, families all across America who are working hard and doing their best and passing on the wisdom and resilience and stories to their children in the hopes that their lives will be a little bit better.

BO: And so I was extraordinarily excited about working with Kehinde and, let’s face it, Kehinde, relative to Amy, was working at a disadvantage because his subject was less becoming; not as fly. I want to say that it was, although Michelle always used to joke, I am not somebody who’s a great subject. I don’t like posing, I get impatient, I look at my watch, I think, “This must be done. One of those pictures must have worked. Why has this taken so long?” So it’s pretty torturous trying to just take a picture of me much less paint a portrait. I will say that working with Kehinde was a great joy and he and his team made it easy.

Kehinde, in the tradition of a lot of great artists, actually cared to hear how I thought about it before doing exactly what he intended to do. There were a number of issues that we were trying to negotiate. I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears; struck out on that as well. Maybe the one area where there were some concessions was, as I said before, Kehinde’s art often takes ordinary people and elevates them, lifts them up and puts them in these fairly elaborate settings and so his initial impulse maybe, in the work, was to also elevate me and put me in these settings with partridges and sceptres and thrones and chifforobes and mounting me on horses. I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We’ve got to bring it down just a touch and that’s what he did.

BO: But it’s hard to, obviously, judge something that is a portrait of you, but what I can say unequivocally is that I am in awe of Kehinde’s gifts and what he and Amy have given to this country and to the world and we are both very grateful to have been the subject of their attention for this brief moment. So, Mr. Kehinde Wiley.

KW: So how do you explain that a lot of that is just simply not true? What is true is that this is an insane situation. To be able to stand on this stage and to look out at this crowd and to have this level of adrenaline flowing through my blood tells me that something special is going on.

KW: My whole life is driven by chance. Much of the work that I’m known for is just chance driven, complete strangers in the streets. Trying to find people that have a sense of grace, some sort of je ne sais quoi, something that you feel will translate on a painting on a museum wall. It’s something that you know when you see it; you don’t quite know what it is. And people are minding their own business, trying to get to work often, and I’ll tap them on the shoulder and I’ll say, “Do you mind if I paint you?” Most people say no. It’s tough, in the streets, to get people to recognize what the import or the gravity of art is. My job has been to slowly take these moments of chance and to try to weave them into something that means something in the language of art history.

KW: These big museums like this are dedicated to what we, as a society, hold most dear. The great curators, their jobs are to be the guardians of culture, to say, “This is what we, as a people, stand for.” Growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles, going to the museums in LA, there weren’t too many people who happened to look like me in those museums, on those walls, so as the years go on and as I try to create my own type of work, it had to do with correcting for some of that, trying to find places where people who happened to look like me do feel accepted or do have the ability to express their state of grace on the grand narrative scale of museum space.

KW: Well, that sense and that obsession with chance has gotten me here in a very strange chance since you, Mr. President, have found something in what I do, what my purpose has been as a creator, as a thinker, as a painter. To be able to project out into the world this urge, this itch, this desire to see something corrected for. It seems silly — it’s colored paste, It’s a hairy stick, you’re nudging things into being, but it’s not. This is consequential. This is who we, as a society, decide to celebrate. This is our humanity, this is our ability to say, “I matter. I was here.”

KW: The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn’t get any better than that. I was humbled by this invitation, but I was also inspired by Barack Obama’s personal story, that sense in which he and I both do have that echo of single parents, African fathers, that search for the father, that sense of twinning. There is kind of like this echo of he and I in that narrative.

When you look at this painting, there’s, sure, an amazingly handsome man seated in the fore, but there’s also botanicals that are going on there that nod towards his personal story. There’s the chrysanthemum, which sort of a state flower Chicago, Illinois. There’s flowers that point towards Kenya, there’s flowers that point towards Hawaii. In a very symbolic way, what I’m doing is charting his path on Earth through those plants that sort of weave their way. There’s a fight going on between he, in the foreground, and then the plants that are sort of trying to announce themselves underneath his feet. Who gets to be the star of the show, the story or the man who inhabits that story?

KW: It’s all chance driven and, Mr. President, I thank you for giving me a chance and I thank you for giving this nation a chance to experience your splendor on a global scale. Thank you.

KW: Oh… I’m so sorry.

MO: Your mom.

KW: You got it dead on. I was so in this zone and talk about not recognizing the real source of the light. My mother, Freddy Mae Wiley, can you please stand? There is nothing I can say. This is really where it all starts. We didn’t have much, but she found a way to get paint and just the ability to… Shut up and breathe. The ability to be able to picture something bigger than that piece of South Central LA that we were living in. You saw it and you did it. Thank you.

To watch the video and read the interactive transcript, see here.