“Artists for Obama ‘Manifest Hope’”

November 9, 2011

from CHAPTER 13 of Branding Obamessiah

O bama certainly had that effect on all of the visual artists who played a strategic role in shaping his messianic image during the campaign. A short walk down the street from Denver’s Invesco Field—the site of Obama’s acceptance speech during the 2008 Democratic National Convention—took Obamites straight to the Manifest Hope: DC Gallery. On display were 150 pieces of art portraying “HOPE, UNITY, PROGRESS, CHANGE and PATRIOTISM.” 13 The gallery was promoted as a “celebration of the grass roots spirit of the Obama Campaign and the role that art played.” Over its five-day run, fifteen thousand patrons viewed a lot of the same stuff that had been fueling the semicomedic “Obama is the Messiah” controversy cascading through cyberspace. While the faithful vehemently denied the divine connection, anyone taking a saunter through this shrine and giving it even a few cursory glances would be hard pressed to think otherwise.

In addition to Shepard Fairey’s iconic image of Obama—which served as the exhibit’s main stage backdrop and which I’ll examine in a later chapter—hundreds of art projects were on display venerating the Democratic candidate. One painting showed Obama rising out of the ocean with white shirt flowing open to the wind, roses cascading off his torso. His glistening belt buckle is emblazoned with the letter “B.” A white stallion gallops on the surface of the water behind him. It was the candidate as Harlequin Romance model, Fabio. 14 Other pieces represented the iconic campaign images—Obama staring off into the distance, gazing intently at the viewer, or with head bowed in prayer. Some of the art reimaged Obama’s sacred words or the campaign’s Logobama.

The noncorporate, outsider vibe of the exhibit—visually expressed not only by the art, but by the participants’ standard attire of skinny jeans and T-shirts-with-a-message—stood in ironic juxtaposition to the corporate, insider vibe of the Democratic National Convention itself. The Manifest Hope: DC Gallery was reconvened in Washington, DC, during the inauguration, and by this time, some artists confessed that victory put them in a tricky situation.

David Choe had painted a series of portraits of Obama during the campaign. Choe noticed that Obama’s hairline from a side profile resembled an outline of the United States. He drew the map on Obama’s noggin and the image went viral, appearing on posters, T-shirts, and bus shelter ads around the country. Before Obama, the thirty-two-year-old Choe’s visual interests were robots, comics, and Asian kitsch. “I’m not that political at all,” Choe confessed, until the saturation of “all-things-Obama” around him finally forced him to take notice. He caught himself identifying with the nonwhite, outsider candidate. “Here comes this guy who overcame these like crazy odds,” Choe said. “When you can connect with someone . . . I’m like . . . Whoa.” 15

B ut when Choe attended the Democratic National Convention in August 2008, he had a second epiphany. “I had never seen such an outpouring from the artist community of painting the same—almost exactly the same—thing,” he said. “And where else do you see this? Jesus. The Virgin Mary.” 16

Choe wasn’t the only supporting artist who was bemused. Ron English had mashed the silhouettes of Obama and Lincoln on multicolored backgrounds to create another iconic campaign image—“Abraham Obama.” “On one level it seems like it’s Beatlemania,” English observed. After the election, English began working out his feelings on a new canvas. “A lot of people have kind of accused us of ‘You’ve blown this guy into something that he isn’t,’” the artist noted. “We kind of made him into an historical figure before he even had a chance to make history.” English said he and other artists “started thinking, maybe we’ve like created a monster,” and so the subject of his artistic muse shifted from Lincoln to Frankenstein. The image of President Obama as Frankenstein’s monster—“Obamastein”—began to circulate around Los Angeles. “That makes sense,” one commentator said, “because Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t have a birth certificate either.” 17

Maybe David Cordero, an undergraduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago, caught on early because he lived in town and read the papers. His papier-mâché sculpture of Obama as Jesus wearing white-and-red robes and a neon-blue halo—titled “Blessing”—created a minor controversy when it went on display at Cordero’s senior show. A student exhibit at the renowned art school hadn’t caused this much of a national stir for a politician since the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington was portrayed in a frilly white bra, panties, garter, and stockings back in 1988. 18 “All of this is a response to what I’ve been witnessing and hearing, this idea that Barack is sort of a potential savior that might come and absolve the country of all its sins,” Cordero said. “In a lot of ways it’s about caution in assigning all these inflated expectations on one individual, and expecting them to change something that many hands have shaped.” 19

Obama’s campaign worked to distance the Illinois senator from Cordero’s visual commentary. “While we respect First Amendment rights and don’t think the artist was trying to be offensive,” Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki replied, “Senator Obama, as a rule, isn’t a fan of art that offends religious sensibilities.” 20

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