How would you describe Obama's legacy

The invisible president
Trump refuses to reveal Obama's portrait

May 28, 2020 • Text by Marian Wild

After 40 years, an incumbent US president decides not to reveal his predecessor's portrait in the White House. Donald Trump is neither a narcissist nor a racist for the first time. His handling of the black community in the past corroborates the suspicion.

Kehinde Wiley, official presidential portrait of Barack Obama, 2018, oil on canvas © the artist

The painting of Barack Obama is unique in the series of official presidential portraits: Obama is sitting on a filigree wooden chair in the Wilhelminian style, bent forward, his arms resting casually on his thighs. Posture and facial expressions express seriousness as well as energy and sovereignty. The young president is as smart as he is well-founded, says the picture. What makes the picture special is its background: no space, no horizon. Instead, a formal grotesque landscape made of plant tendrils, flowers and fans of leaves.

Color and topicality are as unique in this conservative profession of presidential portraits as the constellation of the portrayed and the artist. Obama is the first African American President of the United States, the painter Kehinde Wiley, son of a Nigerian Yoruba and an African American mother, is an active member of the black community. Consistently contemporary, he erected a memorial to his president in 2018. The image that the bling-bling baroque is imputed is made to last. It is another expression of Barack Obama's will to "change", and it is guaranteed to be a modernist thorn in the side of conservative exegetes of the presidential public image.

via giphy

The invisible president mentioned in the title is therefore not Donald Trump - as any observer who has followed an American TV station or a social network in recent years - but in this particular case a contemporary oil on canvas Barack Obama. Invisibility is such a thing nowadays, nothing and nobody is seriously undetectable on the Internet, but when everything is visible at the same time, somehow nothing is visible. Barack Obama, former President of the United States and Donald Trump's predecessor, is not invisible per se, but in a very special place: in the White House.

American democracy is defined by traditions, symbols and rules. Some are powerful collective memories, like the Lincoln Memorial or the Kennedy assassination attempt, others are procedures of togetherness, thus also rules of propriety. Inaugurating the portrait of the predecessor in the White House is one of the procedures granted to the incumbent president. He not only shows good manners towards the predecessor, but also general respect for the office. In 40 years this tradition has never been broken, despite all political differences. Until Donald Trump came. That president announced a few days ago that he would not reveal the presidential portrait of his predecessor.

Trump never made a secret of the fact that he despises the course set by his predecessor, as he has been reversing all Obama's decisions for years. Of course, he almost never replaces it with something of equal or better value, which inadvertently only makes Obama's legacy shine brighter. This is a dialectic of power like out of a textbook.

So you could just mistake Trump for a narcissist who can't cope with his predecessor's popularity and therefore doesn't want to see him in the White House every day, but unfortunately it's not that simple. Since the beginning of his presidency he has sent clear signals to nationalists and racists, to conspiracy theorists and fans of the Confederates who lost out in the civil war, i.e. the civil war party that advocated slavery. Last but not least, he hesitated for a long time to name the racist riots in Charlottesville as such, and he expressly regretted the subsequent dismantling of Confederate monuments all over the USA, the "beautiful works of art" should please be preserved.

All of which makes his decision not to reveal the official portrait of the first African American president in the White House not a narcissistic decision. But a racist one.