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The National Portrait Gallery’s Obama Portraits Will Embark on a Five-City Tour

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama are set to visit Chicago, Brooklyn, L.A., Atlanta and Houston

Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively (National Portrait Gallery)
smithsonianmag.com

Barack and Michelle Obama will soon be on the move once more, only this time, their campaign trail is more artistic than political—and it conspicuously lacks a third dimension.

We’re talking, of course, about the power couple’s portraits, which are set to embark on a five-city tour between June 2021 and May 2022. As the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery announced this week, the dynamic duo—painted by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald—will leave their homes on the museum’s walls next May before journeying to the Art Institute of Chicago the following month. The yearlong sojourn will then take the paintings to the Brooklyn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston before concluding on May 30, 2022.

Since making their Portrait Gallery debut in 2018, Wiley and Sherald’s likenesses of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, respectively, have drawn patrons by the thousands. Their first year on display effectively doubled attendance to more than two million, says Dorothy Moss, the gallery’s curator of painting and sculpture. The portraits, she explains, have been “transformative” for the museum.

For some, visiting the paintings is something of a “pilgrimage,” Sherald, the artist behind the former first lady’s painting and a winner of Smithsonian magazine’s American Ingenuity Awards, tells Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times. Sherald and Wiley are the first African American artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to immortalize a presidential pair in paint.

This tour, then, flips the typical artistic odyssey on its head: Rather than waiting to welcome new visitors, the portraits will trek to them, engaging audiences who might not have been able to make the trip to Washington, D.C.

“We wanted to be sure we shared the portraits with diverse audiences across the country, […] especially young people,” says Moss. “The Obamas really wanted these portraits to be for future generations.”

Presidential portraiture has traveled the nation before. But the Obamas’ paintings have been lauded as standouts since their arrival in the nation’s capital. Both blend subtlety and vibrance, from the lush floral backdrop that makes the 44th president’s regal navy suit pop off the canvas to the striking hues that adorn the skirt of Michelle’s billowing dress—the very picture of her elegant, confident persona. The former first lady’s complexion is painted in Sherald’s signature grayscale, “an absence of color that directly challenges perceptions of black identity,” according to the National Portrait Gallery, as quoted by Smithsonian’s Tiffany Y. Ates last year.

For Sherald, this reserved color palette speaks volumes.

“A black person on a canvas is automatically read as radical,” she explained to Smithsonian. “That’s why my figures are gray. [They] needed to be pushed into the world in a universal way, where they could become a part of the mainstream art historical narrative.”

The artist added, “My portraits are quiet, but they’re not passive.”

Unlike the more “academic” presidential predecessors in the gallery, the Obamas’ portraits are decidedly “contemporary,” says Moss. “These portraits aren’t just important historical documents. They’re important to art history in that they have pushed portraiture in a new direction.”

Identity will come to the fore in the paintings’ upcoming tour, too. Gallery curators carefully selected the five cities the canvases are scheduled to visit, considering the sites’ links to both the subjects of the portraits and the works’ creation.

The first stop, Chicago, is where Barack Obama began his political career, as well as the place where the couple met and started their family. Sherald and Wiley, the latter of whom eventually set up a studio in Brooklyn, spent their childhoods in Georgia and Los Angeles, respectively, according to Peggy McGlone of the Washington Post. Capping off the list is Houston, which, despite lacking a direct connection to the artwork, is what Moss desribes as one of the most diverse cities in its sector of the country.

As a part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Portrait Gallery doesn’t charge admission. In selecting museums for the tour, curators sought out institutions that could offer at least some periods of free admission during each stop, reports the Los Angeles Times’ Deborah Vankin.

For now, D.C. patrons still have more than a year to enjoy the portraits—and bid them a temporary adieu—in their original home, which will host them once again upon their return in 2022. In anticipation of next year’s departure, the National Portrait Gallery will release The Obama Portraits, an illustrated book celebrating the artworks and their influence, on February 11.

“There’s nothing like seeing the work of art in person,” says Moss.

The hope, she adds, is that millions more will now have the chance to take part in the “enthusiasm and sense of community [the paintings] have engendered.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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