The Presidential Library Project: The Black Presidential Imaginary, an exhibition on view at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, complicates the visual and conceptual impact of President Barack Obama’s image in mainstream contemporary culture. It uses the inception of the Obama Presidential Library, slated to be completed by 2021 on Chicago’s South Side, as a launch pad to investigate the ways in which portrayals of a Black president occupied a unique position in American cultural production.
At the intersection of race, popular culture, and politics, the diversity of subject matter addressed in The Black Presidential Imaginary collectively demonstrates how visions of the Obama family resisted certain tropes surrounding Blackness and social class in American visual culture. These historically ingrained stereotypes include media portrayals of Black citizens engaging in violent crimes and drug distribution, female embodiments of sexual promiscuity through the ‘Jezebel’ character, the ‘angry Black woman’ trope, among many others. The spectacle of a middle-class, Black presidential family obtaining a space of political authority in the American geopolitical context marked a seminal moment in the arc of portrayals of Black life. For the first time, Blackness emerged as an aesthetic symbolism for presidential power and vessel to attain the American Dream.
But, America’s tumultuous history and ongoing human rights abuses against the Black body function paradoxically to images of Obama in power.
The Black Presidential Imaginary invites its viewers to grapple with these racial contradictions and inconsistencies. As Chicago-based curator Ross Jordan states in his curatorial statement, the occurrence of a Black president persists as a peculiar event in American history “because it is in existential relation to the promise of the American dream that anyone can be president.”1
It is no secret that the relationship between the American government and Black people has been a tempestuous one. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation set the historical foundation for the contemporary devaluing of Black citizenship, in ways that still continue to impact the quality of African American life today. Whether in its most overt forms, such as state-sanctioned violence through police brutality—or its insidious manifestations like institutionalized racism— the state’s primary relationship to blackness has been one of anti-blackness.
The same constitution that promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, is the same legislative document that deemed enslaved people three-fifths human in 1787. This historical fact—the designation of African American life as an alien species—cannot be made invisible by the bureaucratic role of president. Jordan’s exhibition sheds light on how the democratic roots of American society are in fact antithetical to the longstanding political plight of African-Americans in this country.
This was made the clearest when Obama’s two-term presidency was still littered with the public executions of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Rekia Boyd and countless other innocent lives. The advent of live streamed police brutality videos broadcasted on social media is just one visual archetype that has emerged as a new mode of representation portraying the Black American experience during Obama’s presidency. As Afrofuturist scholar Ytasha Womack asks in the forward to her book Post-Black in regards to the Obama’s:
Has the revelry of [Obama’s] ascension to the presidency signaled the long-awaited arrival of a ‘postracial’ America?…Yes, it is a romantic notion. Of course, we all know that social change is never that easy. Indeed, if we learned anything from the remarkable unfolding of Obama’s presidency, it was that issues of race run deep in our culture, institutions, and national psyche.
Womack expresses how the “post-racial” society is in fact, fictive. One man’s success does not ensure the life, liberty, and happiness for all African American citizens. It does not erase the centuries of systematic oppression that lead to a lack of access to basic amenities like housing, entrepreneurship, employment, and education for communities of color. Even though one would hope that Obama’s Democratic ascension to the top of the federal government would, in its essence, mark a shift in race relations in America given his identity, his intentional display of an elite, privileged socioeconomic status did not lead to a more rigorous protection of the Black livelihood in this country.
The Black Presidential Imaginary exhibits several forms of Black cultural production in relation to Obama’s visual significance, in order to better understand this duality.
Jordan’s inclusion of non-traditional mediums, such as patterned kitchen aprons, graphic t-shirts, and hand-written letters from Southside community residents, demonstrates the need to qualify and document the paraphernalia that archives the occurrence of the first Black president. From satirical Hip Hop music video to formal video footage of Obama’s presidential speeches, The Black Presidential Imaginary brings to light the ways in which the Obamas gracefully occupied—and continue to occupy—a transformative role in American visual culture at the crux of American politics and race relations.
The exhibition initially immerses the viewer in a series of tactile materials centered around the Black female experience. Through fabrics, picture frames, and tablecloths, a femme gendered presence is detectable. Aisha Cousins and Shonna Pryor use the commonplace household objects of aprons and tablecloths to insert the Black female gaze. Shonna Pryor’s Tablecloth Archive I elevates the banal domestic material of a tablecloth and transforms it into an artistic object by wrapping the worn fabric around the frame of a canvas. Pryor innovatively shifts the meaning and value of the material within the standards of canonical art.
Rashayla Marie Brown’s She Stands on Her Own, But Never Alone presents a series of picture frames layered on top of one another with supplemental imagery of high-profile Black women in the media. The most prominent image included is, of course, Michelle Obama, but Brown makes a point to also display worn photos of Shirley Chisholm and Oprah Winfrey, among others. Brown’s keen attention to material and its level of visibility within her work makes a commentary on the countless Black women who have frequently been cast aside in the shadow of Black men, but have nonetheless helped pave the way for the first Black president. Without explicitly demonstrating it, Pryor, Brown, and Cousins allow notions of Black femininity, gender roles, and familial love to be expressed to the viewer through an engagement of ready-made objects. Their works pay homage to the sacrifices Black women have clandestinely made within an oppressive white patriarchal paradigm.
Billy McGuiness’ minimalistic work of Interlock similarly deals with the theme of invisibility through a manipulation of material. Interlock presents a gray tinted canvas covered in footprints and debris. The piece’s subtle presence at the entrance of the gallery space evokes notions of Black male invisibility, assimilation, and the importance of leaving a trace behind as oppressed peoples. McGuiness allegedly placed this piece of canvas between a courthouse and jailhouse to be repeatedly walked upon in order to make visible the countless Black and brown lives who are incarcerated at higher rates than their white counterparts. It uses residual traces, what McGuiness calls “foot traffic on canvas,” to center, and give credence to, the anonymous presence of jailed bodies.
Nate Young’s A Container for the Projection of Political Assertion by a Negro Artist exhibits a glass of water tucked away in the corner of the exhibition space. Its title insinuates that the glass of water is merely a platform to project a politically infused dialogue within it. The cup’s ability to blend into its surroundings perhaps makes an analogy between a glass of water—a material essential to human life—and the importance of Black political representation portrayed through minimalistic means. Young’s work further brings to mind strategies used by canonical artist such as Michel DuChamp, who employed ready-made objects to assert a politicized commentary on contemporary life.
On the other hand, unlike the pieces displayed at the entrance of the gallery space, James Britt and Zachary Fabri tackle media representations of the Obama family from a satirical lens. James Britt’s installation includes a series of fictive advertisements that comment on notions and strategies of consumption and advertising in the Black community. The turquoise, black, and orange digital prints of Alive, With, Pleasure contain graphics that simulate the design used by the FDA banned menthol cigarettes which have had a history of disproportionately targeting communities of color. On a pedestal in front of these prints, the same visual strategy is used for a series of fake advertisements that use images of Obama superimposed upon graphics that replicate the designs of Newport and Kool cigarettes.
Together, these works shed light on the marketability of Black culture at large and apply it to the Obamas specifically. This innovative approach deconstructs the profitability of Black cool–using the image of Obama as the epitome of the common societal phenomena.
James Britt’s video is the most direct when making this point. His work, Bad and Bougee includes looping footage of the comedic media attention the Obamas received on segments like The Late Late Show with James Corden, where Michelle was featured joyfully reciting lyrics to popular hip-hop music. These humorous moments during Obama’s presidency scored by rap further articulates a type of acceptable Black cool. Britt’s work demonstrates the Obamas’ ability to straddle and walk the fine line between racial and cultural categories while still remaining true to their authentic selves.
Jordan’s tactical inclusion of both non-commercial and commercial ephemera to portray the Barack Obama’s presidency draws from this fact by inviting new ways of historicizing the monumental occurrence of an African-American president through material culture.
The exhibit’s presentation of hand-written letters from four South Side grassroots organizations, who form the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, is one example of this. The letters, unadorned with frames or color, reveal the realities of South Side neighborhoods who have been plagued with gun violence and city-wide disinvestment—the very societal circumstances that frequently force community members to rely on underground economies to monetarily support themselves and those around them. This coalition has been particularly vocal about their objections to the construction of Obama’s Presidential Library in Chicago’s Black community. Upon reading the letters, it’s clear that community residents are proud but anxious about the ripple effects of the creation of an expensive library in the center on Chicago’s South Side.
These letters, in comparison to the artistic work of the show, further problematize the spatial and social politics of the architectural project in relation to the lived experiences of South Side community residents. While building a presidential library in the heart of a Black community can indeed produce a hub of social and cultural empowerment, it can simultaneously act as an engine for displacement to vulnerable residents of color.
The Black Presidential Imaginary demonstrates how portrayals of the Obamas circulating within mainstream culture—innovatively intertwining hip hop music, Black advertising strategies, and satire—marks a novel historical moment for Blackness as expressed through American visual imaginary. The Black Presidential Imaginary most prominently presents a dialogue about the complexity of Black image making within the highest sphere of American politics.While the process of archiving Obama’s visual legacy through a presidential library is the start of an aesthetic reconciliation, its effects on the reality of Black life in Chicago are up for debate.This tension between mainstream portrayals of the Black experience, against desires to preserve Obama’s legacy at the expense of lower-income residents, coupled with utopian aspirations for community building, are all investigated in The Black Presidential Imaginary.
Jordan’s curatorial vision thus grapples with paradoxes of these intricacies, yet still, makes a point to celebrate the advent of America’s first Black president.
1 Ross Jordan, “The Black Presidential Imaginary,” Hyde Park Art Center exhibition pamphlet, 2017.
2 Ytasha Womack, Post Black: How a New Generation is Defining the African American Identity, (Lawrence Hill Books: 2010), x.
Sabrina Greig is an art critic in Chicago, originally hailing from New York City. She received her MA in Art History from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a focus on representations of the Black diaspora in pop culture, fine art, and gentrified urban spaces. Sabrina is a current curatorial fellow at ACRE Projects located in Pilsen and has curated shows at the Haitian American Museum of Chicago as well as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her literary work has been published in Contemporary&, Bad at Sports, Fnewsmagazine, and writes regularly for Sixty Inches from the Center.