Obama: a new icon for artists

Whether by well-known painters or graffiti whizz-kids, images of the President-elect are popping up across the world, says David Usborne
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The Independent Culture

It is not possible to overexpose Barack Obama. With another six weeks before he even takes office, we are still being bombarded with versions of his visage, and those riding the bandwagon include not only the memorabilia industry – the commemorative plates hawked nightly to American television viewers for $19.99 apiece are especially dismal – but also renowned artists such as Kurt Kauper and Yan Pei-Ming.

In fact, those porcelain plates may be something of a bargain. (Buyers are allowed only two plates per order because of limited supplies.) The circular painting of Obama by Kauper that was on view at Art Basel Miami Beach earlier this month carried a price tag of $65,000. The monochrome Yan Pie-Ming version of the President-elect, bundled down to Miami by the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, was a steal at a mere $300,000.

Indeed, visitors to Art Basel Miami Beach could barely raise their heads from their overpriced hotel pillows this year without meeting the gaze of this year's election victor in some medium or another. Among the most striking was a rendering of an already famous mural by the LA-based French street artist Mr Brainwash (aka Thierry Guetta) outside the Scope pavilion. It featured Mr Obama as Superman, fists on hips. Alongside it, the artist had added the lines, "Rosa Parks sat, so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked, so that Barack Obama could run. Obama ran, so we could fly."

"Obama ran so artists could cash in" might also be apt. Yet the explosion of Obama-centric art has its roots not in monetary commerce but in the commerce of politics. Artists in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other big American cities began daubing bricks and cement walls with images of Obama – or sticking them up as posters – many months before he was elected, as a collective propaganda effort. Just as musicians such as Will.i.am released music videos in the hope of sparking support for Obama, particularly among the youth vote, so street artists applied their talents to the American urban landscape to applaud their preferred candidate.

Walk the streets of the Bronx or Manhattan, and many of the murals and posters remain today. In New York, the graffiti king Chico was among artists committing their admiration of Obama to the streetscape. In Chicago, Ray Noland, a graphic artist, designed and produced posters bearing different Obama images. Within months, his work was showing up in towns across the US. Before long, cheeky riffs on Obama, depicted, for instance, as Uncle Sam, were appearing in places as far away as Moscow.

The viral effect of these poster and mural eruptions surely aided Obama in his battle first for the nomination against Hillary Clinton and then for the presidency itself. But not all of it was spontaneous.

It was before the Super Tuesday in February that the Obama campaign approached the street artist Shepard Fairey and commissioned a poster that would be far from the usual paraphernalia issued by campaigns. What he gave them was an image of the candidate that was both Warhol-like in composition and colour and redolent of the Che Guevara poster that helped to turn the revolutionary into an international icon. The image was so popular that it was itself morphed by other artists. Last summer, there were versions of Fairey's picture in Paris, except that the face at its heart was of Nicolas Sarkozy rather than Obama.

That Obama-Art was set to enter the mainstream was pretty clear by the time of the Democratic Convention in Denver in late August. Delegates bored of proceedings in the Pepsi Center were invited to peruse an exhibition organised by Upper Playground, the American shop and gallery, with works on display by upwards of 200 artists from around the world – all doing Obama. Among those invited was the New Jersey muralist Ron English, whose own portrait of Obama showed him as Abraham Lincoln. Stare long enough at Abe's face and slowly you begin to recognise the distinctive laugh lines of the President-elect.

"I've never known artists to act like this," English commented recently. (His mural has since been displayed in numerous US cities, including Boston and Los Angeles.) "Everywhere I go I see artists doing Barack, making glitter suits out of Obama portraits, doing paintings." Nor are the painters, muralists, poster-makers and glitter-suit makers stopping at Barack. Watch carefully for new art featuring other members of the soon-to-be First Family, including Michelle, the Obama daughters and their putative pooch.

According to one estimate, upwards of $200m has already been spent on Obama memorabilia, some of it on those plates and other rotten tchotchkes, and some on T-shirts bearing images by artists such as Fairey. If other artists feel the pull of Obama and the need to commit their own representation of him to paper, pottery or canvas, who can blame them, faced with that kind of popular demand? Everyone must eat.

Before long, the US will have a first-class stamp with Barack Obama's face staring out. And it won't be your normal portrait of a head of state. It will be Barack Obama as seen by an artist such as Yan Pie-Ming. Which wouldn't be a bad thing at all.