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Barack Obama's official portrait unveiled; Can Olympic diplomacy help solve the North Korea crisis? Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 14:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Tonight, a portrait of the portrait painters. The artists who made history, making the official

pictures of America's first black president and his first lady. They join me for an exclusive conversation. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald at the

unveiling in Washington's Smithsonian Museum.

Plus, Olympic efforts at nuclear diplomacy as the US vice president now hints that America is open to direct talks with North Korea. The

investigative journalist Suki Kim on Pyongyang's real quest for gold.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London. During the turbulent first year of the Trump

presidency, his predecessor Barack Obama has kept the traditional low profile, speaking up only on matters of vital importance, calling out

racism and supporting freedom of the press, for instance.

But, today, the former president was back in the spotlight in Washington, looking relaxed and happy, unveiling his official portrait. The painting

was done by the artist Kehinde Wiley, who is known for depicting ordinary people, usually African-Americans, and placing them in positions of power

using bold colors and historical scenes.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to say - Michelle always used to joke, I'm not somebody who is a great subject. I

don't like posing. I get impatient. I look at my watch. I think this must be done. One of those pictures must have worked. Why is this taking

so long? So, it's pretty torturous trying to just take a picture of me, much less paint a portrait.

I will say that working with Kehinde was a great joy.


AMANPOUR: And the picture is amazing.

Now, the former First Lady Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald to paint her portrait, making it the first time in history that the president and first

lady's portraits were painted by African-American artists. And that was no accident.

Wiley spoke of the power of this moment in history.


KEHINDE WILEY, ARTIST: It seems silly. It's colored paste. It's a hairy stick. You're nudging things into being. But it's not. This is

consequential. This is who we as a society decide to celebrate. This is our humanity. This is our ability to say I matter, I was here. The

ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming.

It doesn't get any better than that.


AMANPOUR: And I could feel the pride and the emotion when I spoke to both artists from the Smithsonian immediately following the unveiling.

Welcome both of you to the program. It's been an amazing day. What a great moment for you both. How did you feel when those portraits were


AMY SHERALD, ARTIST: No words really. It was, for me, suspenseful and just - you're waiting for the crowd's reaction. And this is really

exciting. I mean, Kehinde, he said it perfectly. It was insane.

WILEY: Absolutely insane. There is what you expect with a portrait like this, a sense of an exhibition. That's something, as artists, we're used


Here, you're dealing with it on a muscular scale. The sense of the lights, the sense of the crowd, the anticipation that people feel with this level

of personality - Barack Obama, Michelle Obama - it was absolutely extraordinary.

AMANPOUR: So, what do you think? Were you pleased with the reaction? Were you pleased with how the first lady and the president greeted these

amazing portraits, Amy?

SHERALD: Yes, very much. I knew she was really excited to see it and I was really excited to have her see it. So, to see the look on her face

when she actually saw it in person was wonderful.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's play a little bit about what Michelle and the president said, particularly about your painting, Amy.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FORMER FIRST LADY: Within the sentences of our conversation, I knew she was the one for me. And maybe it was the moment

she came in and she looked at Barack and she said, "Well, Mr. President, I'm really excited to be here and I know I'm being considered for both

portraits," she said. But, "Mrs. Obama," she physically turned to me and she said, "I'm really hoping that you and I can work together."

[14:05:] OBAMA: Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman

that I love.


AMANPOUR: Well, I had to play those bites because they're so funny and it really sort of lightened a very profound moment. So, let me ask, Amy,

before I get to Kehinde's amazing representation. Tell me about the dress, tell me about the pose. It is really dramatic the way you've captured the

first lady.

SHERALD: We went through a series of poses. And when she landed on that one, it just felt like the right one. I knew it immediately.

I mean, I think I photographed over 150 different poses. Some the same over and over again just trying to figure out what would work. And I think

that pose kind of - she's contemplative. She's just radiant in that photograph.

And the dress was something that - she also allowed me to have creative control over. And when I saw that dress, I knew that it was something that

would work as well because that dress is almost like a painting in itself.

So, all that together, and the way that the composition is formed to kind of like a triangle, almost like a monument, when I saw it, I knew that's

what the pose is going to be.

AMANPOUR: So, Kehinde, you had an even - is it a bigger task to capture the first black president of the United States? Was it very, very

stressful trying to figure out how best to represent him?

WILEY: Well, stressful wouldn't even begin to say what this was. It was daunting on a level that I don't think I've ever had to contend with.

Here, much of my work was based on unknown sitters, people who I meet in the streets casually, minding their own business, trying to get to work.

And then, I turned their portraits into things that you see in the great museums throughout the world.

In this particular case, I'm dealing with the leader of the free world, I'm dealing with the president of the United States. And in that regard, all

bets are off the table.

He is a singularity. We don't go towards historical precedent to fashion how we picture him in the world.

I wanted to create something that was wholly new, something wholly unique. And so, part of that was just sitting down with him and really getting to

terms with what he wanted in a painting, how he saw himself.

And, honestly, he was not one who felt particularly comfortable with the process. So much of this posing and picture-taking has a lot to do with

vanity, the ego, the self, the positioning of the self in the world publicly.

This man is serious about being about the people, being seen in that light. And so, to that regard, I think that some of the choices made, the casual

nature of the dress, for example, the sense in which there is no time, that open - the body language where he is sort of relaxed and open to the world,

those are little nods (ph), little signifiers into how he thinks, how he chooses to position himself and how we can sort of look at this painting

alongside other historical examples of presidential portraiture.

AMANPOUR: Again, they both break this tradition in a really dramatic way. But tell me about the flowers, Kehinde, what was all the foliage about?

Was there - I don't know. It looks like the flowers and the person was sort of struggling for prominence, but also all sorts of different flowers.

WILEY: What you'll find is - in fact, if you look at the lower portion of the painting, the vines and the flowers, they're sort of contending with

the body and space for dominance in the picture plane.

What's going on there is that sense in which we asked ourselves, who is the star of the show in the painting. Each one of those flowers points to his

life story. So, there's elements of Kenya in some of those flowers.

There's flowers that come from Hawaii. There's flowers that are state flag of Illinois. Really sort of bouncing back and forth decoratively towards

elements of his life and telling a story that is at once decorative, personal and historical.

AMANPOUR: So, I want to ask you both because you can't avoid it. This is two African-American artists painting the first African-American president

and first lady. Just that in itself, I don't know how you top that really.

Amy, you're a relative newcomer to the world of public art. How did it feel for you?

[14:10:00] SHERALD: For me, it was something that I had never even dreamed of. And so, to find myself here, it's just really unbelievable. I don't

even - I can't even put it to words really yet. I feel like I'm going to take some time and look back on it and just kind of process everything

that's happened thus far.

AMANPOUR: And I wonder whether you think, Kehinde, after being at this for such a long time that you are in a special moment now and the fact that you

two were chosen and that you did this is also political, not just artistic.

WILEY: I would say that everything that we do as artists is imbibed with political content and import. But we can't not recognize the important

significance of representation in art and the decision that this president and first lady have made by choosing artists like ourselves.

There is an incredible responsibility in terms of how we choose to celebrate this moment and how they chose to choose us in terms of what that

means. They're signaling to the rest of the world that it is OK to occupy skin that happens to look like this, it is OK to see people who happen to

look like us on the great walls of museums in the world.

And in so doing, what I see there is true leadership. I see people who have the vision and the intent to be able to be not only great people, but

thought leaders.

AMANPOUR: I just wanted to know what you thought - just to broaden it out a little bit, the "Black Panther", new movie, and how that has received

such an amazing reception.

And I've heard so many poignant interviews and descriptions about that film. People say, we have simply never seen or we haven't seen enough us

portrayed in this heroic form.

WILEY: Well, I think, obviously, both of us are dealing with popular culture and it bleeds into the fashion decisions that are made in the

paintings, the music that young people are listening to, the sense of grace and carriage that exists in all of the portraiture, wouldn't you say?

SHERALD: Yes. I agree. I mean, I really think it comes down to changing people's expectations of what they are going to see when they come into a

museum or what they would see when they go to a movie theater like that.

And I think for us to be able to produce movies about us and not have it labeled as a black movie is a thing. You have actors who have crossed over

and almost lost their blackness in a way.

So, like Will Smith can have a blockbuster movie that everybody will go see, but it's almost like he's not - he's become something bigger than

himself. And I think that's what's important about representation is that these figures become ubiquitous and they change people's expectations of

what they think is universal.

WILEY: Well, the making of images, the consuming of images normalizes what we see as acceptable. Museums choose to say this is the best of us, this

is what we choose to celebrate as a society.

The great films that we nominate every year as viewers to be celebrated say this is what we stand behind. And at that time that those voices and those

people happen to inherit bodies that look like ours, that is a moment where normalcy is excellent and excellence is normalcy with regard to black and

brown bodies.

And I think it's an extraordinary time to be an artist working right now.

SHERALD: My approach was that - I mean, it's kind of similar where I walk into museums and I don't see myself, but I also, when I began this body of

work, looked around at the conversations that were happening amongst my contemporaries and I saw for me as a figurative painter that there was a

gap in the American art historical narrative of images of black people that were just being black.

AMANPOUR: And I just wanted to ask you lastly, Amy, did you ever expect to be here doing this at this time. It wasn't so long ago that apparently you

were waiting tables and it wasn't so long ago that you also had a life- threatening condition that you had to have surgery for. It's not obvious the fact that you're sitting in front of us and having this unbelievable

unveiling today.

SHERALD: No. I didn't see myself sitting here exactly, but I did see myself where I am now in my career.

AMANPOUR: And Kehinde, the president was sort of joking a little bit about how he couldn't afford to be portrayed as Napoleon or King Philip or some

of the other heroic poses that you are so famous for.


OBAMA: His initial impulse maybe in the work was to also elevate me and put me in these settings with partridges (ph) and scepters and thrones and

chifforobes and mounting me on horses.

[14:15:18] And I had to explain that I've got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We've got to bring it down just

a touch.


WILEY: Well, it's interesting because immediately after the president made that statement, I had come through and clarify and say, well, you know he's

joking about that. Barack Obama has an incredible sense of humor.

And he was able, I think, to key in on some of the really comical aspects that exist in our history. So much of what my work does is echo the ego,

the chest beating, the bravado that exists in the 19th and 18th century French and British portraiture.

Some of that stuff looks really interesting when juxtaposed on young people in the streets of America and internationally. And I think that's one of

the reasons why people have responded to a lot of the work that I've been known to - known for heretofore.

The president's portraiture, obviously, had to take a completely different direction. And I'm very proud about the direction that we took.

AMANPOUR: OK. Listen, I'm really grateful for you talking to us today. It's an amazing moment and congratulations to both of you.

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, thank you so much indeed.

WILEY: Thank you.

SHERALD: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Well, as President Obama was leaving office, he warned President-elect Trump that North Korea would be the most urgent issue of

his presidency. And with the PyeongChang Winter Olympics now well underway in South Korea, nuclear diplomacy has taken center stage amid rare efforts

at diplomatic reconciliation between the two Koreas.

The North has sent 22 athletes to PyeongChang and a delegation that includes Kim Jong-un's young sister. She's the first member of the Kim

dynasty to visit the South since the Korean War.

And she sat barely 10 feet away from Vice President Mike Pence at the opening ceremony, but they did not exchange greetings.

So, can the games generate enough momentum to bring both sides to the table, as Pence has hinted. Joining me now from New York to discuss this

is the journalist and author Suki Kim, who went undercover in North Korea in 2011 posing as a Christian missionary and teaching some of the sons of

the military's elite there.

Suki Kim, welcome back to the program.

SUKI KIM, JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me.

AMANPOUR: So, given that background, given that you do know some of the workings, at least amongst the elite in North Korea, what do you make of

what's unfolding at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, particularly the scenes at that opening ceremony?

KIM: In a way, it's not that different from how North Korea behaves. The last nuclear test was in September. Missile test was November.

And after all that war language between Kim Jong-un and Trump, suddenly, we have this very happy two Koreas together, propaganda.

So, this whole Olympic PR moment is almost what North Korea is good at and, clearly, succeeding because when we're talking about the Olympics, it seems

the whole world is talking about North Korea and how in a way attractive it has appeared on surface. I mean, starting from those women and also the

very elegant-looking sister.

AMANPOUR: Suki Kim, you're talking about the cheerleaders and the whole sort of ensemble that Pyongyang has sent. Clearly, a lot of people,

including the United States, have said we mustn't allow this to become a propaganda exercise that the North can use to hijack the center stage.

But on the other hand, the South Korean president has a lot at stake and he is trying to gamble on a, as he has called it, a peace Olympics. Don't you

think at least it's worth trying that.

KIM: I think that Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, that's always been his platform. His people are from North Korea. This is entire, his

basis. His basis is based on pro North Korea policy, which is very similar in a way to former president Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

So, what he's been aiming is actually just not that different. We've had that Sunshine Policy, which is all about pro-engagement with North Korea

over a decade ago under those two presidents. And Moon Jae-in is sort of a repeat of that.

[14:20:11] So, what Moon Jae-in pushes is not surprising. Yes, we need it. It's not the antagonism between America and North Korea have just gone to a

point where we need is some sort of a step back.

However, the way it's sort of played out at the Olympic, this sort of false image of a happy two Koreas together, marching together under one flag is

complete false image. And it's total propaganda.

AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you about what you call a totally false image. I mean, you've been inside - undercover inside North Korea and you also know

South Korea. When you say false, how do you think the South Korean people are reacting to this?

And, obviously, potentially, there's a difference in generations. Those who grew up with the war and those who grew up and never knew about the


KIM: Absolutely. I think that whole sentimentality, it's very manipulative. The Korea teams marching together.

Two Koreas have not been - the families have not been able to ever meet except for a very few handpicked ones that you see on the cover of

newspapers around the world, once every few years.

Other than those few families, no one has been able to keep in touch. Not even a phone call, not a letter. And that generation died without ever

meeting again. We're talking about millions of Koreans who got separated.

So, these two governments should never manage to make any sort of reconciliation to pretend these athletes marching together at the opening

ceremony have anything to do with actually peaceful Korea is completely misleading.

It's nothing. There's actually no substance to it. And the younger generation who have zero connection to North Korea except basically North

Korea has been a trouble, sort of a thug of a nation that threatens them occasionally and bombs civilians, bombs South Korean submarines.

And so, sort of this neighbor that's been causing trouble suddenly took over the Olympics, all the attention.

AMANPOUR: Well, Suki Kim, obviously, that's one of the reasons why people want to bring them in, so they can try to persuade them to stop creating

the kind of trouble that you're talking about.

Are you surprised, disappointed or hopeful with the apparent sort of change in Vice President Mike Pence's position because they came, he came, talking

about maximum pressure, keeping up the sanctions.

As you saw, he did not greet Kim Jong-un sister. But he left and told "The Washington Post" that the United States is not opposed to direct talks with

North Korea. Is there a contradiction or is this the kind of diplomacy that has to be tried even by the United States?

KIM: Well, I think that diplomacy has to be tried, right? But I think - and I said it's false because the image we're getting has nothing to do

with what's actually happening.

If Pence is acting all unfriendly towards North Korea at the ceremony, that had actually nothing to do with the American position, which is actually

pro-dialog at this point.

And also, the two Koreas looking so happy together, that's not really true. There's literally no communication between the two. And, politically, they

need each other.

Right now, Moon Jae-in being pro-engagement; and Kim Jong-un, he's pushed to this point.

And also, another thing, North Korea, this is always what's happened. They've done things like, they will do a nuclear test, next thing the world

rewards them with actually inviting them to the Olympic and letting them take over the whole attention.

So, whatever they're doing works.

AMANPOUR: Well, clearly, there have been - you're right - critics of that. But there are equally people who are terrified that if this state of

maximum tension between North Korea, the South and the rest of the world continues that that could lead to an even more dangerous situation.

So, to that point, I don't know whether you dismiss Sunshine Policy or whether you appreciate it, but you can make the argument that the world was

safer during the Sunshine Policy era.

So, my question to you is, are you surprised that Kim Jong-un has used his sister as a messenger to invite the South Korean president to Pyongyang?

And what do you think might come of that, knowing what you know of the elites in Pyongyang?

KIM: OK. Two things. Sunshine Policy, it's a problematic policy. But the world being a safer place, but were the North Korean citizens during

then because all the powers went to the regime because basically the South handed money over to the North Korean regime pretty much during that era.

Another thing is Kim Yo-jong, the sister, being sort of an ambassador right now taking over the whole attention of the Olympics, that's not surprising.

Her job is basically - I think her official title is something like Director of Propaganda of The Workers' Party.

[14:25:13] She's basically the sister, the family member who is the most trust member of Kim Jong-un. Her job is to sort of promote propaganda and

kind of look elegant and pretty, although she's basically the member of the most murderous, brutal family dictators in the world.

AMANPOUR: So, do you know that President Moon getting an invitation to go there could be a good start. Very quickly. I've got about 30 seconds.

KIM: I mean, I think that's what's going to happen. If you look at history, with Kim Dae-jung, that's exactly what happened. So, we are

looking at under Moon Jae-in them a time of engagement with North Korea and that's the political agenda of Moon Jae-in. I don't know how much that has

to deal with actually the real civilians in North Korea who are basically hostages of that regime.

AMANPOUR: Suki Kim, thank you for your insight. And, of course, this is one of the most important geopolitical situations going on right now.

That is it for our program tonight. And remember, you can always listen to our podcast at any time, see us online at and follow me on

Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.