In the imposing National Portrait Gallery in downtown Washington DC, where long-dead US presidents stare out imperiously from the walls, there’s a sudden crush of museum security personnel yipping like sheepdogs around a snaking line of visitors.
The cause of the crush in the New Arrivals section seems impervious to hubbub as he gazes determinedly into the future, above a simple message of “Hope”.
There’s not a square inch in this city that has not caved into it. Obamamania has gripped even this most venerable of Washington institutions. The National Portrait Gallery has just acquired the now iconic, Warhol-inspired poster of Barack Obama by pop artist Shepard Fairey.
This is extraordinary, to say the least. The museum typically displays portraits of US presidents after their terms have expired. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush had their portraits unveiled only weeks ago. Now, here we have the 44th president of the USA before he’s even made it into the office.
And standing patiently in line, are visitors waiting to get themselves photographed next to the latest exhibit.
“My gosh, I gotta’ get it and I gotta’ get outta’ here,” wails a woman in a sumptuous mink coat who’s dressed like she’s ready for the ball. She is, literally. Monica Drake, 44, has tickets to a gala Ohio cocktail and dinner party this evening. “I was on my way out and I saw this portrait,” she tells me - like it explains everything. “I just have to get my picture taken with this poster.”
Beats me why. Drake, it turns out, has her very own Fairey poster back home in the little township of Put-in-Bay in Ohio. “They sent me an email about it,” she said, referring to the Obama ‘08 campaign. “I purchased the poster for $20.”
TWENTY DOLLARS? That’s a steal.
Fairey, a Los Angeles-based pop artist, is the rage in the Obama art world, a subculture, a veritable universe, of which DC is the Mecca these days.
At a gallery in the hip Georgetown area, a cornucopia of Obama-inspired art – many of them rather good – greets the visitor.
A gigantic poster of Fairey’s Obama greets the visitor as a DJ spins out funk and hip-hop tunes. The show, titled “Manifest Hope,” was conceived as a “celebration of artists across the nation who used their voices to amplify and motivate the grassroots movement that carried President Barack Obama to victory.” Voilà!
Herb Williams, a 35-year-old artist from Nashville, Tennessee, grins before his artwork featuring Obama’s face against the backdrop of the USA. The artwork, emblazoned with the message, “Unite”, is made out of 50,000 crayons and took the artist about five months to finish. Reds, blues and grays dominate the piece in a sly wink at the electoral maps that fed the media frenzy in the lead-up to the Nov. 4, 2008, election.
“I started doing this piece right before Obama secured the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton and I finished it on election morning,” says Williams.
I can tell from the look in his eyes, it’s been worth the time. This piece was sold shortly after the show opened – for $25,000.
I almost fall off my feet. In these economic times artists are still managing to make a living – well, as long as they’re riding the Obama wave. But with characteristically gracious Southern charm and manners, Williams takes the time to explain the situation to me. “Right now,” he says, “this is the center of the art universe and this couldn’t happen anywhere but in DC.”