DETROIT – Two contrasting images of Michelle Obama – wearing pearls and smiling, and as a rifle-toting revolutionary – are on display at the University of Michigan as part of an exhibit that considers race and visual representations.
“Reframing the Color Line: Race and the Visual Culture of the Atlantic World” includes a series of illustrations of Black people starting from the 18th century that range from highly demeaning to strongly sympathetic.
Taken together, the imagery “reveals how racial stereotypes were perpetuated, and in many ways, continue to exist,” co-curator Dr. Martha S. Jones writes in an essay in the university’s online journal Montage.
The first image of Michelle Obama at the William L. Clements Library’s exhibition shows the first lady in her official photographic portrait, smiling and wearing a sleeveless dress with a string of pearls.
“Situated just over the first lady’s left shoulder, White House photographer Joyce Boghosian used a provocative prop … a Rembrandt Peale portrait of the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, captured just slightly out of focus,” writes Jones, an associate professor of history and Afro-American and African Studies.
“Michelle Obama stands out in front of this scion of American slavery and American freedom,” Jones says. “Jefferson’s image is a powerful reminder that the meaning of Michelle Obama’s presence in the Blue Room is rooted in a history that extends back to the earliest years of the republic. Today, it is this African-American first lady that commands the White House, while Jefferson has become a shadowy figure that underscores her authority.”
The second image is a cartoon from the July 21, 2008, cover of The New Yorker magazine, showing Michelle Obama and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in a room at the White House.
He’s in a tunic and turban and she’s in camouflage pants and combat boots, with an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. They exchange a touch-fist greeting as a U.S. flag burns in the fireplace. A portrait of Osama bin Laden hangs on the wall. The magazine titled the cartoon “The Politics of Fear” and said it was an attempt to poke fun at those who questioned the Obamas’ patriotism.
An 1804 political cartoon shows Jefferson and his slave and rumored sexual partner Sally Hemings as a rooster and chicken, with a quote from Joseph Addison’s play “Cato” saying, “Tis not a set of features or complexion or tincture of skin that I admire.”
From the late 1820s, Philadelphia artist Edward Clay’s print series “Life in Philadelphia” presents an unflattering and mocking portrayal of Blacks in what Jones describes as an attempt to show their unfitness for freedom.
“Differences among people have been the basis for discrimination and oppression,” the American Anthropological Association says in its separate online project, “Understanding Race.” It describes racial classifications as social, not biological, and differences among people as “a cause for joy and sorrow.”
The exhibition is scheduled to be on display through February.