Even before Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign hit full stride, guerilla artists began plastering urban bus shelters, rural telephone poles and subway rights-of-way with images and the slogans that would come to define his political rise: Hope. Change. Progress. Our time has come. Si, se puede. Go tell mama! I’m for Obama.
Hip-hop artists, many of whom once shunned politics, shouted out the candidate on commercial releases, as well as on hundreds of mixtapes. YouTube was flooded with mashups by underground emcees urging people to Crank Dat Obama and do The Obama Shuffle.
Once he was elected, rappers continued to name-check the new president. In On To the Next One, Jay Z wrote, M.J. at Summer Jam, Obama on text / Y’all should be afraid of what I’m gonna do next. On My President, Jeezy intoned, My president is black, my Lambo’s blue.
As Obama’s time in the White House winds down, it is clear that he inspired artists of every stripe in ways previously unprecedented for the occupant of the nation’s highest office.
“There were so many artists capturing the image of the president,” said Brandon Fortune, chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “We have never seen anything like it.”
Already, Obama is the subject of at least two feature-length movies about his early life. This summer’s Southside With You imagined his first date with Michelle, and the upcoming Netflix release Barry will focus on his time as an undergraduate at Columbia University. While still in the White House, Obama has been depicted in fine art projects, television shows, comic books and even a British musical.
New York artist Rob Pruitt, who has documented Obama’s presidency by painting a 2-by-2-foot portrait of the president each day he has been in office, has said he was moved by Obama’s first presidential election.
“I had just been so excited about Obama’s campaign,” Pruitt said in a YouTube video about his work. “There was just so much energy and so much enthusiasm, I wondered after Obama won, what was I going to do with all of that energy?”
The paintings, done in a subtle red, white and blue, have been displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit and until Dec. 18 are at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, a gallery in lower Manhattan, New York. By the time Obama’s term is done, Pruitt will have created 2,922 Obama portraits.
Some scholars say the artistic interest in Obama is fueled by his barrier-breaking role as the nation’s first black president. But, they add, it also goes further.
“I think he has proven to be more of an inspiration to artists than other presidents,” said Travis L. Gosa, an assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell University. “Part of that has to do with the obvious: being the first African-American president. But also, I think you have all these artists making sense of who Barack Obama might be. As you study his iconography, you see so many ways people imagine him, some contradictory. They compare him to [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], to Malcolm X, to Muhammad Ali, to Jesus, to the devil. People project their fears, hopes and dreams onto him.”
In part because of his race, many artists assumed Obama would be more radically progressive as president — an idea that prompted an outpouring. “President Obama’s campaign in 2008 was the only moment in my life when I’ve felt like there was any hope in the American political system,” said artist Josh Kline, whose digital creation Hope and Change is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. He continued: “When Obama was elected, it felt like the country was embracing — or maybe becoming — the America most artists know and live in. The diverse, tolerant and outward-looking culture of the cities.”
Obama is not the first president whose image and style melded with the culture. He is not even the first president to be seen as hip. John F. Kennedy was vibrant, youthful and handsome in ways that both reflected and transformed the country. The Ray-Ban-wearing, saxophone-playing Bill Clinton also brought a certain style to the White House.
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