Last month, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portraits of Former President Barack Obama and our forever FLOTUS Michelle Obama. Aware of their place in history as the first African American family to occupy the White House, the Obamas chose two Black artists to render their likenesses.
The former president said he picked renowned painter Kehinde Wiley because portraits “challenged our traditional views of power and privilege.” He also appreciated the way Wiley “would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and grace and dignity of people who were so often invisible in our lives, and put them on a grand stage.”
Mrs. Obama said she picked Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald because “there was an instant connection, a kind of sister girl connection” with the painter. During the portrait unveiling, Mrs. Obama also said she was excited about all the little Black girls who would see an image of someone who looked like them hanging in one of the nation’s most venerable museums.
“I’m also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who, in years ahead, will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” she said.
Well, it’s happened.
During a recent trip to the Smithsonian, visitor Ben Hines captured a picture that proves just how powerful representation can be.
Hines said he captured the image of the little girl who was visiting the museum with her mother.
“It was so touching and uplifting for me to see this beautiful child looking at a beautiful portrait of a powerful woman,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I was so delighted to have been in the right place at the right time.”
Hines’ mother, Donna Hines, said it was difficult for her to describe the wondrous scene.
“It’s hard to describe in words,” she said. “She had such wonder on her face and her entire body just stopped as she looked at her, and she had this wonder that was silent and yet seemed to be saying something very big at the same time.”
Once Hines posted the image to Facebook it quickly went viral. It even caught the attention of Sherald, who said the picture of the little Black girl staring at her portrait of Mrs. Obama had her “feeling all the feels.”
“When I look at this picture I think back to my first field trip in elementary school to a museum,” Sherald wrote.
“There was a painting of a Black man standing in front of a house,” she continued. “This was my first time seeing real paintings that weren’t in a book and also weren’t painted in another century. I didn’t realize that none of them had me in them until I saw that painting of [Bo Bartlett’s]. I knew I wanted to be an artist already, but seeing that painting made me realize that I could.”
Proof representation truly does matter.