Return to Transcripts main page

CNN'S AMANPOUR

The artists behind the Obama portraits; Confront racial terror in America. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 7, 2018 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Coming up, we are looking back at some of our favorite interviews this year. In this edition, my exclusive

conversation with Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the artists behind the official portrait of America's first black president and First Lady.

And as America opened its first memorial to more than 4000 victims of lynching, I spoke to the Equal Justice activist behind it, Bryan Stevenson,

about how to heal through confronting America's history of racial terror.

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's known for depicting ordinary people, usually African-Americans and placing them in

positions of power, using bold colors and historical scenes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER US PRESIDENT: I want to say that it was - although those - Michelle always used to joke, I am not somebody who's 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 has

this taken 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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 unveiled?

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 to.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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."

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: 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.

[14:05:00] 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.

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?

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?

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.

[14:10:15] And in so doing, what I see there is true leadership.

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 heart 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.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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: There are more than 700 memorials to the Confederate cause across the country, but there's never been one to more than 4,000

lynchings, those black victims of vigilante mob killings. Until this week, of course.

My guest Bryan Stevenson is taking a major step towards righting a historic imbalance. He is the visionary force behind two major new institutions

that wrestle with America's history of racism and they're about to open in Montgomery, Alabama.

The first is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and it's dedicated to the thousands of men, women and children, who were victims of anti-

black terror.

The second called the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration stands on the site of a warehouse where enslaved blacks

were imprisoned.

Together, they connect the arc of America's racial history from slavery to Jim Crow to the arrest of two innocent black men in a

Philadelphia Starbucks this month.

Bryan Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and he joins me from Montgomery, Alabama. Bryan

Stevenson, welcome back to the program.

BRYAN STEVENSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

AMANPOUR: You have done more than many, many people to keep memory alive and to keep history alive, so that justice perhaps can be served. You

have not one, but two, incredible memorials. Well, one is a memorial. The other is a legacy museum opening. How hard was it to get to this point?

What are you trying to say?

STEVENSON: Well, it has been really, really challenging, but I'm incredibly excited and really proud to be creating the spaces.

After the emancipation of millions of black people who were enslaved in the United States, enslaved black people - formerly enslaved black people

were subjected to decades of terrorism and violence through lynching.

And the brutality of that era has really never been acknowledged. We've been silent about it for too long. And our silence, I think, has made

the continuation of racial inequality and bigotry a problem that we still deal with today.

[14:15:02] So, my motivation is to create a new record, to create a new landscape. In the American south, the landscape is littered with the

iconography of the Confederacy. We love talking about mid-19th century history, but we don't talk about slavery. We don't talk about lynching.

And I'm hoping that these spaces will push us to be more honest in confronting our past and addressing the brutal history of racial

inequality that we've all inherited here in the United States.

AMANPOUR: Well, to that end, I just want to read you because I talked about memory. Elie Wiesel, the great Nobel Laureate, the late

Nobel Laureate, says without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates. If anything

can, it is memory that will save humanity.

So, that's what he said. But you've pointed out that most people can't even name a lynching victim. And I think, in the period that

you're looking at, I think it's 1877 to 1950 as a period of about sort of 80 years, more than 4,000 Americans were lynched - men, women and children.

STEVENSON: That's right. And it was terrorism. We cannot describe this violence as murder or even as hate crimes. It was terrorism. Black

people were pulled out of their homes. They were drowned. They were burned alive. They were beaten to death. They were hanged.

Sometimes on the lawn in the public square, in front of courthouses, thousands of people would come and celebrate this spectacle of violence

and brutality. And we haven't talked about it. And it did something devastating to this nation.

The demographic geography of America was shaped during this era where 6 million black people fled the American south and that's how we have

these large minority populations in Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland because black people fled to those communities not

as immigrants, but as refugees and exiles from terror.

And because we haven't addressed this, I think we continue to struggle.

AMANPOUR: Describe the sort of imagery of the memorial you've chosen. I think most people, myself included, believe that lynching was pure

and simple hanging. But lynching was many other forms as well.

STEVENSON: That's right. And it's important that people who come to our memorial have context. And so, when you enter the memorial, the

first thing you see is something that most people have never seen in America, which is a sculpture on slavery.

You'll see human figures in chains, in bondage and the optic of enslavement in this brutal form is something that we've not done a very good job of.

We don't have an optic that accurately characterizes what happened to black people when they came to this country.

And you make that path, you take that journey and then you enter what we call the Memorial Square and you'll begin to see these 6-foot COR-TEN

steel monuments with the names of counties and people who were lynched because it's important for people to understand that this was the kind of

violence that wasn't hidden, it wasn't pushed to the side. It was actually lifted up to further torment and taunt and terrorize people of color.

And you can't appreciate how horrifying and terrifying this violence was until you begin to see these monuments rise. And, ultimately, you

are shadowed, you are haunted by these structures that represent all of the lives that were taken and then we tell stories.

AMANPOUR: Has anybody claimed their monument yet?

STEVENSON: Well, it's interesting. We open this week. We've already heard from two dozen communities, of faith people, schools

and universities, even some government officials, who are interested in claiming their monuments.

And so, I'm very hopeful that this will happen and, over time, our memorial will be a sort of report card on which communities in America

have acknowledged their history, have committed to this process of truth and recovery.

When I go to the Holocaust Museum, Christiane, I go through it, I'm very moved by it. And at the end of it, I'm prepared to say never again. And

we haven't created spaces in this country that compel people to commit to never again, never again tolerating enslavement and lynching

and segregation and racial inequality.

And because of that, I think we're still burdened by that history. Black and brown people are presumed dangerous and guilty in our criminal

justice system, by the police in spaces that are unfairly condemning them. And that legacy has to be confronted. And I hope these sites inspire them.

AMANPOUR: Talking about the history and the monuments, obviously, this comes at a time when there's an almighty row over monuments in the South.

And you have specifically either not asked, or she's not coming, is the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey.

And I want to just play for you something that she said about these monuments that you're talking about.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[14:20:00] KAY IVEY, GOVERNOR OF ALABAMA: When special interest wanted to tear down our historical monuments, I said no and signed a law to protect

them.

We can't change our race, our history. But here in Alabama, we know something Washington doesn't. To get where we're going means

understanding where we've been.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: So, Bryan, Governor Ivey is taking the exact opposite view that you've just described Germany took in the post-Nazi era.

[14:20:00] STEVENSON: Yes. I mean, first of all, we're inviting everyone to come and see our monuments and memorials, and the governor among

many other elected officials is more than welcome. We've had a lot of elected officials say I'm going to be there.

I just think the iconography that we've created in the American South is dishonest. It's a distortion of history. It's not actually designed to

help people understand who we are and what we've done. It's actually designed to help people forget some things.

And in the 19th century, we brought hundreds of thousands of enslaved people. We brutalized them. We treated them badly. And we

haven't acknowledged that.

The two largest high schools in Montgomery, Alabama are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. And a lot of people think that these

Confederate monuments were erected at the turn-of-the-century in the 19th century.

The statue of Robert E. Lee in front of Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama was erected in 1955 as a symbol of resistance to

racial integration in public schools. It was designed to signify this idea that segregation forever is the mindset and we haven't talked about that.

And you can't look at that monument and understand the purpose of it.

And because of that, we have to change the landscape. I don't think anybody would support a country putting up a statue to Osama bin Laden.

We'd be outraged by that. Hitler statutes would be unconscionable. And yet, we haven't confronted what these statutes represent and how they make

people of color feel.

AMANPOUR: So, as we talked about the governor, she actually even went so far as creating - well, Monday was a state holiday in Alabama and is

the official observance of Confederate Memorial Day.

But over in Louisiana, Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke to us recently about and took the opposite view. This is what he's saying, which goes really to

the heart of what you're saying. Let me play that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITCH LANDRIEU, MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: Slavery, it should not be hard for us to say in the second decade of the 21st century, was one of our

nation's great original sins that has affected us through today.

And to have statues up that are - basically were put up as political messages to tell African-Americans that they were not welcome here is

not something that's consistent with the history of New Orleans or who we have ever been.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: So, Bryan, in the bottom of your heart, despite all that you are doing to create a different narrative, what do you feel? How do you

keep your passion and your motivation when you see reports in the United States that say even if a young black boy is raised in a very upper-middle-

class, wealthy home, he's going to face discrimination the minute he finishes his education, when you see here in Britain a massive, real

problem with the notion of deporting black people, Caribbean people who were brought over here at the invitation of the government to help build

this country after the war.

And yet, this kind of stuff can casually still happen. In Starbucks, two black people are arrested just for going in there and waiting for a friend.

It doesn't happen to white people.

Where do you get your energy from?

STEVENSON: Well, I just recognize that justice is a constant struggle. I understand that we've got a lot of work to do to eliminate the

presumptions of dangerousness and guilt that get assigned to black and brown people.

But I'm also persuaded that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. So, it is necessary that

I stay hopeful about what we can do.

I'm the great-grandson of people who were enslaved. My great-grandfather was enslaved in Virginia. My grandmother was terrorized during the era

of lynching and fled Virginia. My parents were humiliated every day during the Jim Crow era when they had to see those signs that say white and color

which weren't directions to them. They were assaults. They created injuries.

And despite the fact that enslaved people have been brutalized, when they got emancipation, they didn't say, let's kill all the white people,

let's seek revenge. They said, let's find a way to create peace and justice and they were promised freedom, but what they've got instead was

terrorism and violence.

And even during that era, the response was, let's find a way to create peace and justice. During the Civil Rights Movement despite

the humiliation and the indignation of segregation the brutality of sheriffs and police who put dogs and fire hoses on non-violent protesters

who just wanted to be free, just wanted to vote, the call was still to keep finding a way for peace and justice.

[14:25:03] So, in the midst of this epidemic of over incarceration, this continuation of assault on black and brown people in the immigration

context in the Starbucks, in the public spaces, I still have to call for peace and justice because I know that there is this line that will define

how we are viewed in this world and that line requires us to keep searching for peace, keep searching for justice to avoid hatred and violence, to

avoid the bigotry that has defined our community.

And so, for me, hope is a requirement. And when I look back at the people who've done the kind of work I'm trying to do today, and I think about

those folks in Montgomery 60 years ago who had to frequently say my head is bloodied, but not bowed, I don't have any excuses for finding a way to stay

hopeful, to keep fighting, to honor that commitment to justice, to struggle.

Because I do believe, one day, we'll get to a point where we can actually claim more freedom, we can experience something that feels more

like equality and justice, but we can't get there if we're unwilling to stay hopeful about what we can do and to create a more just society.

AMANPOUR: Well, Bryan Stevenson, keep fighting. We're in your corner. Thank you so much, the founder and executive director of the Equal

Justice Initiative.

STEVENSON: Thank you so much. Thank you.

AMANPOUR: That is it for our program tonight. And remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at Amanpour.com and you can

always follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.

END