Words: Rochelle Thomas

For the first time in history, the official portrait of America’s first lady has been created by an African-American artist – Amy Sherald. Based in Baltimore, Maryland and praised by Michelle Obama for being a “woman of extraordinary character and strength.

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Sherald was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004, undergoing a heart transplant in 2012. She continued to make art while she recovered, her portrait paintings shifting from autobiographical to socially aware, focussing on the way people construct and perform their identities in response to political, social, and cultural expectations.

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Sherald often paints black skin tones in grey as a way to take away the assigned colour of her subjects and painted Michelle in her signature greyscale before a light blue background. Reflecting on the piece Michelle commented: “I’m also thinking about all the young people, particularly girls, and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place…and they will see an image of someone who looks like them, hanging on the wall of this great American institution. I know what kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls”.

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Of the piece, Sherald says “I tell American stories through the paintings I create. Once my paintings are complete, the model no longer lives in the painting as themselves. I see something bigger, more symbolic, an archetype. I paint things I want to see. I paint as a way of looking for myself in the world.”

Follow Amy Sherald on Instagram @asherald

Words: Rochelle Thomas