Many first became familiar with Amy Sherald when her portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in February 2018. With the commission of the Obama presidential portraits, she and Kehinde Wiley became the first African-American artists to achieve this honour.
Sherald received her BA in painting at Clark Atlanta University in 1997 and her MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. Between degrees, she was part of an international artist-in-residence programme at Spelman College and curated shows in Peru.
Her work engages with African-American stories and identity through portraits – a genre lacking in a diversity of representation. She often places figures in front of brightly-coloured plain backgrounds, dressed in bold, patterned garments. This is in contrast to the grisaille (or grayscale) tones she uses for the skin tones. She does this to disconnect colour as the focus in the discussion of ‘blackness’ and redirect attention to the lives of the figures depicted.
Her paintings were classified by the New York Times as ‘stylised realism’, and the connection to American Realism is certainly there. Here scenes are simple, but powerful in inserting imagery of African-American people into the canon of art history.