A Vision in White views Michelle Obama through the lens of recent media coverage, capturing both her splendor and the limitations of its gaze. By distilling the media’s portrayal of Michelle Obama down to her most discussed features, this piece reveals the ways in which her national portrait remains partial and fragmented. What is visible points to what is invisible, ultimately showing how Michelle Obama, as a whole person, is publicly reduced into mere parts. A Vision in White underscores intersections and overlaps between power, race, and gender in American culture.
When the term “First Lady” is used apolitically, it describes a woman with an exceptional level of talent in a particular field (Aretha Franklin has been honored as “The First Lady of Soul”; Madonna is the “First Lady of Pop”). The First Lady of the United States of America, conversely, earns her title through her husband’s election. Stars in entertainment are celebrated for their unique gifts, while a First Lady is appreciated for her ability to assimilate into a role nearly identical to that of the woman who preceded her. She is championed as a wife, mother, hostess, and volunteer. It is the First Lady’s ability to adopt this persona that is key to her legacy: her dedication to politically non-divisive causes, ability to organize and attend ceremonies, and of course, to look good doing it all.
The few who have defied the prescribed role of First Lady by remaining meaningfully employed or by voicing their political views have faced intense public scrutiny. Interestingly, these “unladylike” activities have drawn attention to the First Lady as a cultural gague for historical shifts—and at times transgressions—in normative gender roles. Over sixty percent of women in the U.S. are currently employed, a fact which would lead one to think that a professional First Lady would be celebrated in the White House—yet the nation let out a sigh of relief after the 2008 presidential election when Michelle Obama traded in her legal practice for designer fashions and the fight against childhood obesity.
Like a majority of Americans, I was excited to see Michelle Obama become First Lady in 2009. Obama, a black lawyer from Chicago, in many ways embodied an ideal portrait of the American dream. From her blue-collar upbringing to her graduation from Princeton, Obama was a bold choice for First Lady. Campaign interviews revealed her to be both articulate and driven. She framed her marriage as a partnership, and her children as her greatest responsibility. Doubts about her ability to put aside her professional ambitions to assume the role of First Lady were quickly put to rest in the first term. During her celebrated tenure, it has become clear that Michelle Obama holds a specific cultural significance, unlike any other First Lady. Not only is she the first woman of color to become First Lady, she has become emblematic of America’s struggle to negotiate issues of race, power, and gender.
Cultural tensions have been visible in the media. For decades a First Lady’s fashion has been part of the inaugural blitz, but in early 2009, media outlets began reporting sightings of Obama’s arms, referring to them as the “Gun Show.” This unprecedented focus on her body crossed an unspoken line of civility; a president’s wife was being freely objectified by the media. Comparing the treatment of other First Ladies during their time in office makes this difference even more pronounced: Kennedy was celebrated as a fashion icon; Clinton for her many fashion faux pas; yet news coverage of the designers Obama wears runs second to how her figure looks in the clothes.
Mainstream media discourse suggests that the American public is both mesmerized by and terrified of Obama’s strength and beauty. It is as if our nation is transfixed with the otherness of this First Lady of color. The convergence of the role of First Lady and the black female body have evoked a form of overt, sexual objectification never before directed at the office of First Lady. This focus on Obama’s body has sexualized what has been a historically sexless role encouraging a type of “parts and pieces” dialogue reminiscent of both auction blocks and meat markets in this nation’s not-so-distant past.
While some backlash against The Administration is expected in any presidency, the level of sexism and racism directed at this First Lady by men in power is astonishing. Attempts to overshadow Obama’s extensive education, professional experience, and value as a human being further reflect the unique struggle this First Lady has faced in overcoming social and cultural prejudice.
A Vision in White is part of an evolving series of artworks I have made over the past five years that explore the cultural intersections of the role of First Lady in contemporary society. As national role models, the ways in which each presidential wife negotiates the issues of marriage, identity, and power have historically correlated with normative gender trends for women and girls in the United States. Mrs. President, a piece I made in 2009, engages the obscurity of what it is to become a historical figure through marriage. This piece features silhouettes of each first lady’s head with her corresponding husband drawn on top. The Great American Bake-Off features cross-stitched portraits of the 2008 democratic candidates’ spouses framed in bakeware. This piece focuses on the cultural interplay of gender, race, and domesticity that permeated political discourse during this historic election. To see more of these and my other works please visit my site.
While making A Vision in White, two sculptures continued to resurface in my thoughts: Fragments of a Queen’s Face, from the 18th Dynasty of the Amarna Period of ancient Egypt, and Claes Oldenburg’s London Knees, 1966.
A Vision in White draws from the formal arrangement of these works, as well as from their aesthetic, which is both minimal and refined. From the jasper lips, I drew inspiration to create a likeness of Obama that was well crafted and reflective of her beauty. Casting the arms out of glass not only gave them a diaphanous quality, but also created a resonance with sculpture from the Classical period in ancient Greece and Rome, as did the draping of cloth across the armature that forms Obama’s invisible body.
A Vision in White and London Knees share the use of a hem line to delineate what part of the body is represented in the sculpture. Similarly, they speak to a moment in the fashion continuum. What is true of Fragment of a Queen’s Face, London Knees and A Vision in White is that they are all informed by what is missing. It is by recognizing what is not there that each portrait becomes whole.
The slideshow below details the many steps taken in creating this artwork. You can pause it and scroll through by clicking at the bottom of any image.
A Vision in White took approximately 400 hours to produce over the course of four months in three cities.
Many thanks to Martina Igerbraese-Cole, Angela Caldera, Jill Sebastian, Steve Feren, Matt Pipenbrok, Brian Nigus, Qiang Liu, Rory Erler and Mary Hoffman for the various ways you helped to make this piece happen. This portrait is a success thanks to you and your generous lending of time and knowledge. Thank you to Lea Johnson, Ginny Johnson, and Brandi Rogers for being my faithful editors. Your eyes and ears are invaluable. Thanks to Eric Baileys for the beautiful photographs. Finally, thank you to Debra Brehmer for including A Vision in White in the current exhibition at the Portrait Society Gallery, The Personal is Political: Martha Wilson & MKE. I am ever thankful for the opportunity, support and risk your gallery takes in the name of fine art.
A Vision in White is now on display at the Portrait Society Gallery through July 14th.