If someone asked you to imagine Barack Obama, you might picture him wearing a crisp navy blue suit while being interviewed on TV. Or he might be dressed in the emblematic American cotton tee, blue denim jeans and baseball cap.
Surely the president of the United States would not be clad in strapped sandals and a colorful, toga-like traditional African kente cloth. But why not?
The Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG) is challenging Americans, and other visitors, to see Obama through different eyes in an exhibition titled “African Visions of Barack Obama: Folk and Popular Images of America’s 44th President.”
The display, which opened Aug. 29 and runs through Dec. 9, contains more than 60 paintings made predominantly by African business owners interested in attracting local and foreign customers.
George Jevremovic, a Philadelphia art dealer who collected the images, will give a talk today (Sept. 20) at 5 p.m. in the lower gallery of the Zoellner Arts Center.
Jevremovic, the founder of Material Culture, a Philadelphia store that specializes in selling traditional arts and crafts from around the world, acquired the images on a trip to Ghana and Kenya in 2009. He said he was captivated by hundreds of images of famous people painted on wooden boards of all shapes and sizes.
The “Yes-We-Can” haircut
Some of the depictions of Obama are serious – an unsmiling, suited Obama makes bold eye contact with the viewer. Some are familiar – Obama wearing sneakers, khakis and a wrinkled shirt, sits on a blue bench, links arms and laughs with his African grandmother. Others are whimsical – Obama advertising a “Yes-We-Can” haircut for a barbershop.
The painters, said Jevremovic, are business owners who copied images from magazines and television. Few are trained artists who created “art for art’s sake.”
The exhibition is being presented by LUAG in conjunction with the South Mountain College Seminar and is curated by LUAG director Ricardo Viera and Norman Girardot, seminar leader and professor of religion studies.
“This is not America looking at our own president. This is Africa looking at our president,” said Viera.
“To know the world, and to know ourselves, we must take into account the different perspectives on things, in this case the American president, that other cultures have,” said Girardot.
LUAG emphasizes that the exhibit is not political. “This exhibition is not what we in the West are accustomed to as ‘fine art’ or ‘political art,’ but arresting visual examples of a folk wisdom coming from all sorts of common African people,” says the exhibition’s pamphlet.
The exhibition asks visitors to reconsider malleable definitions of art and artists: Many of the paintings have a naïveté about them. Bodies are painted disproportionately and forms are incorrect. In one painting, Obama is waving an outstretched hand that is much too small for his body. In another, his oversized head makes him look like a cartoonish bobblehead.
The images also challenge viewers to consider the culture of the barber who advertises the Obama-rama haircut and the cook who entices you with a sign for Obama fried rice.
So next time you’re asked to close your eyes and imagine the president of the United States, why not picture him in a kente and sandals?
Photos by Carla Prieto