Niki Johnson, the artist who created the controversial pope portrait made from condoms, has another intriguing piece at the Portrait Society Gallery, 207. E. Buffalo St.
Called "A Vision In White," it’s part of the current show at Portrait Society Gallery called "The Personal is Political: Martha Wilson & MKE." It features suspended glass arms draped in fabric and adorned with bracelets.
Although a friend’s arms were used for the casting, they symbolize the extremities of Michelle Obama.
Johnson was particularly inspired by the media’s focus on Obama’s body during and after the election of her husband.
"The media almost immediately started talking about her body. Not her fashion, but how her figure looked in the clothing," says Johnson, who is an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD).
Of course, the attire of first ladies – most notably Jacqueline Kennedy – has been the focus of the media for decades. But when Michelle Obama’s toned arms were repeatedly referred to as "the gun show," Johnson felt a line was crossed.
"This unprecedented focus on her body crossed an unspoken line of civility; a president’s wife was being freely objectified by the media," says Johnson. "The convergence of the role of first lady and the black female body have evoked a form of overt, sexual objectification never before directed at the office of first lady."
"A Vision In White" is one of numerous pieces Johnson has created in the past five years to explore what she calls "the cultural intersections of the role of the first lady in contemporary society."
"I wanted to present Michelle as beautiful, because she is, but also what is missing and how much of her person is dislocated in public conversation," she says.
Johnson studied African American history in college. She says she learned a lot about the sexualization of the black female body during this time.
"It opened my eyes," she says. "I started being more sensitive to it."
"A Vision In White" was Johnson's first glass sculpture, hence, it was a learning experience. The piece took roughly 400 hours to create and was constructed in numerous locations, including the University of Memphis, MIAD, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Johnson’s home studio in Shorewood.
"Glass is extremely persnickety," says Johnson. "This was the most stressful project I’ve ever done. But a good stress."
The piece has a goddess-like feel to it – a dichotomy of pop culture and timelessness. The shawl contributes to the timelessness. It could be from any era, but Johnson sewed it based on one Obama wore to the 2009 state dinner.
"A Vision in White" resonates beyond Michelle and the sexualization of the black female body. It makes a statement about women and girls in America, in general, and how the First Lady, whether she wants to or not, gauges who they are expected to be in American society.
Michelle Obama’s strength, intelligence, professional success, commitment to family and willingness to talk about the imperfections of her husband made her "real," feared and /or a curiosity to the public.
Did Johnson notify Obama about the piece?
"No. Not yet, anyway. I don’t think she’d want to jump in the fire with me about this," she says, laughing.
Like the pope piece (called "Eggs Benedict"), Johnson says she wanted to maintain respect, but at the same time, call attention, through her art.
Joseph Pabst purchased "Eggs Benedict" and a portion of the proceeds were donated to the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin per Pabst’s choice. The piece will eventually move to a museum.
If "A Vision in White" is sold, Johnson plans to donate a portion of the sale to a women’s and girls' organization.
"I believe that if art is going to address politics you might as well give a portion of it to the cause," says Johnson. "I'll put my money where my mouth is."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.