Democracy Goes Green

HLS exhibit presents abstract portraits of Obama campaign

The 2008 United States presidential campaign was legendary, marking not only the election of the first black President, but a moment where the American public was fully engaged in the development of a new era. To capture the changes and attitudes during this tumultuous period, London-based portrait artist Nicola Green followed President Barack H. Obama, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, during his presidential campaign as the first-ever artist in residence. Her interpretation of the universal themes of this time period, visually translated into a series of images entitled “In Seven Days...”, is on display at the Law School in Austin Hall until December 3.

Creating her art from these campaign experiences, Green aims not to make a political statement but to convey what she calls “the larger human story.”

“It is about why this moment was important for present and future generations and what it could teach us. I wanted to remind people of what is possible when people come together and work together to make something happen... The 2008 campaign process was a tribute to the ideal of U.S. democracy, and I tried to give an artistic, visual sense of what it felt like to be at some of the events on the campaign,” she says.

Green says she chose to showcase her exhibit at the Law School for several reasons, not only because of the president’s affiliation. The project emerged from a friendship between Obama and Green’s husband, David L. Lammy, a member of Harvard Law School’s class of 1997, who serves as member of British Parliament. With the aid of Obama’s staff, she was able to access campaign events and observe the inner workings behind this influential campaign.

However, her main objective for choosing Harvard was to interact with the students who will become the country’s future leaders.


“I wanted this work to be launched in a public institution where young people in particular could engage with the work,” she says.

Green had originally planned one trip to create a single portrait of Obama; however, she says she realized the need to expand her project to capture the changing attitudes in America during the elections.

“I quickly realized that I needed to make more than one trip and that the story I was witnessing was about the American people, the campaign and the global community more than it was about Obama,” she says.

The collection represents seven prevailing themes—also reflected in the works’ titles—she had observed on different days while accompanying Obama’s staff as artist in residence: “Light,” “Struggle,” “Hope,” “Change,” “Fear,” “Sacrifice/Embrace,” and “Peace.” The focus of the prints is seemingly simple and the themes easily understood. However, Green complicates a more general reading of her work.

For example, the last of the series, “Peace,” Green presents an orange image of a raised hand addressing an audience. Initially, the hand gestures a tranquil conclusion to the story; however, the same calm strength juxtaposed with the chaotic and unnerving orange background alludes to the need to preserve hope and unity.

Some of her pieces speak to more personal experiences. In “Struggle” Green illustrates a tight, upheld fist using 24 karat gold leaf. While the tension of the fist, as depicted by iron-colored lines of wrinkles and shadow, show Obama’s struggle and perseverance during the campaign, the image represents a more personal reflection of Obama and of her own experiences. The gold leaf acts as a representation of his—and of her own children’s—mixed ethnicity.

“I decided to use gold leaf because when my first dual heritage son was born, a black woman said to me, ‘When your little boy asks if he’s black or white you are to tell him that he’s golden,’” she says.

As in this project, Green aims to tell the stories of individuals through art, from personal narratives to greater social issues, which she then processes into simpler images that challenge her audiences to think about the ideas at hand.

“[The images] distill my literal experiences, as well as tell the story I saw unfold. For me this is a universal story about what hope actually means,” she says.