Donald Trump met with President Obama at the White House this week. America’s first black president— who has nearly two months remaining in his term— enjoys a high popularity rating north of fifty percent. But how will Barack Obama be remembered? For one Boston artist it will be in many ways and in many forms that boggle the imagination. And it will be cast in bronze, thus surviving way beyond the two-terms of our outgoing President.
Artist Alan Colby’s paintings and sculptures center on America’s poor and the policies that affect them.
“Working people are really having a tough time. I grew up in Medford. I come from a white background, a blue-collar background. My father was in the Teamsters Union.”
And so Colby sees Barack Obama, though imperfect, as a President whose policies are empathetic with his own background and politics. His South End exhibit is a series of sculptured busts, a statement about America’s 44th President that’s steeped in class and racial politics and defies convention.
On the floor of the Art Block Gallery Colby points to a bronze figure resting on a podium covered in a distinctive white wrap; the first of a collection of Obamas as some might imagine him.
“I’ve depicted him first as an Indonesian Prince, the next as a bull fighter. There are three versions of the bullfighter. There, that one’s tattooed.”
And then there’s Obama as the Roman God Mercury with wings on his feet. Colby explains.
“And that one’s about health care, about Obamacare. And when they opened the new Fog Museum I saw Mercury and it said “wing protective spirit” and so I called that One “Wing Protected Spirit --Obama Cares.”
Colby has been sculpting busts in the likeness of Obama since 2008.
“When I was campaigning for him and doing the Indonesian Prince, it was just a very clear decision that I had to stay on this during his presidency.”
Over 30 years Colby’s art has focused in large part on the residents of a black and Latino housing project just a few blocks from here.
Back in ‘91 a small child lived in the projects next door asked me if I could paint like the other guy painted figuratively. He told me Claude Monet would challenge him to a paint off and I said ‘stand over there I'll do a portrait of you’ and had him stand over there by the dumpster and I did a portrait him. The next night I woke up and I said I want to do 50 of these just because it seemed impossible and it also going to introduce me to this new neighborhood I was in.
And here’s how it all connects to Colby’s current Obama exhibit.
“Both of those projects really for me feels like Black Lives Matter.”
But in ways far different than the slogan suggest, says Colby.
A lot of the kids they all wanted to be basketball players and some of them would say that they wanted to be an artist, and I would encourage them to draw.”
“Did any of them say they wanted to be president?” I asked Colby.
“That was totally something that would seem like a fantasy in a movie,” her replied.
So Colby says he decided to enshrine the nation’s first black president in bronze for the historical record and for those residents of the nearby housing project who thought it could never happen.
Colby continues our tour of the Obama exhibit pointing to a sculpture that he says exemplifies the President’s most charismatic quality:
“Right now we’re looking at Obama in the persona of Buddha and coming out of the sides of his head are two deer antlers, and it was totally connected to the idea of being self-contained. It’s the idea of him being Calmer in Chief. Like I’m calm. He calms us. I got the idea after the Paris attacks and everybody wanted him to bomb somebody and he came out really strong and I was so impressed that idea of No Drama Obama.”
These are small to large figurines with intricately sculptured faces of Obama in different styles of shirts, hats and coats. The lines in his face and brow –that have grown deeper over the years—are displayed in these statuettes. Each of the figures sits on a podium staring out at you. In front of another bronze sculpture we stop to view Obama in the personage of a familiar character from a popular movie:
“Right now we're looking at President Obama in the stance of Samuel Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction, and he's got a finger up, the Scolder in Chief, and he's reading the Roberts Court the riot act about Citizens United… He’s got the burger in his hand. And I initially called it “bad mother…” he laughs.
“We don’t have to go there.”
We zigzag across the floor of the gallery and pivot in front of another bronze figure: This one of Obama wearing a hoodie.
"Trayvon" said Colby. "The feeling I had when I was watching that stuff. We all know what it feels like to have loss. Every person has gone through some kind of loss. I know a lot of Americans, white Americans are feeling that terrible shame.”
Colby teared-up. He spoke of the hard-hitting emotions that went into sculpting Obama in a Hoodie, a tribute to a man who once said that Trayvon Martin could have been his son. But Colby— as much as he admires President Obama— is also critical of some of his policies. Other portrayals of the President over the course of his 8 years in office include Colby’s depiction of him as the Deporter-in-Chief –in the form of Mr. Liberty with the Liberty Torch and in the other hand prison keys, symbolically used to lock up undocumented immigrants. Another shows him as Gary Cooper’s character in High Noon holding a radio control device to launch a drone strike.
And then there is President Obama as a Native American. “And he has a tear coming down his eye in reference to a an old commercial about all of the litter problems we had at the time. I was thinking about how glad I was that he refused the Keystone Pipeline.”
Colby says he wants visitors to this exhibit to understand through the experiences of this bi-racial complex man what it means to be an American.
He says he going to miss Barack Obama because rarely has there been a President who has represented so many things to so many people—citing the acceptance of gay marriage and health care for the poor, among other successes. Colby says this exhibit is a testament to those successes.
“In a way I consider these a time capsule to people in the future who want to know what it felt like when Obama was President.”
Alan Colby’s “Obama in Bronze” is on display through Saturday at the Art Block Gallery in the South End.