The Obama portraits displayed at the High Museum of Art

The Obama Portraits Tour exhibition has arrived at the High Museum of Art as a part of a five-city tour presented by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The portraits of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, two Black artists commissioned by the former presidential pair. Both paintings are packed with symbolism about Obama’s heritage and presidency and represent the new era ushered in by the first Black president and former first lady. The Obamas chose these artists specifically due to their contemporary art style. 

“The Obamas were interested in contemporary African American artists and art for a long time, so they identified the two artists,” said Lizzie Crawford, a docent at the High Museum of Art. “The paintings are lively, bright, and modern, compared to the more traditional presidential portraits of the past.”

Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barack Obama’s portrait, frequently paints portraits of young Black men photographed off the street and inserts the models into iconic 17th-century European paintings. He puts the models in street clothes and combines elements of the original paintings to make the portraits contemporary takes on traditional paintings with features of African American culture. For Obama’s portrait, he chose many contemporary elements, distinguishing it from the classical style of painting portraits of presidents. Wiley’s presidential portrait is full of symbolism meant to represent the former president’s terms and his life before. The flowers in the ivy bush background include chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, where Obama started his political career and worked as a community organizer; jasmine, referencing Hawaii, his birthplace; and African blue lilies to represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace.

Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama’s portrait using grisaille, a painting technique using stylized shades of gray to highlight the exposed skin of her Black subjects. By diverting the attention away from the brown skin color, Sherald believes she can separate the depicted racial identity from her model’s, allowing the focus to shift to Obama’s accomplishments as first lady. Additionally, Sherald used elements of traditional African American quilting from Alabama and elements of classic American folk art for the dress pattern, a feature intended to highlight the cultural background and heritage of the first lady. The former first lady’s family traces its roots to pre-Civil War African Americans in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. 

The portraits were commissioned in October 2017, completed around January 2018, then unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in D.C in February 2018. The paintings were very well received by the public and described as unique and colorful, especially when compared to the classical style used to paint past presidential portraits. Most of the classical presidential portraits were painted in muted and neutral colors and tones, but the Obama portraits display a refreshing palette of vibrant colors. 

“Nothing can prepare you for the emerging vibrance of Barack’s portrait,” said Upper School history teacher John Terry, who has seen the Obama portraits on numerous occasions. “You immediately know of Michelle and her public image through her portrait.” 

Wiley and Sherald’s unique rendition of contemporary historical figures like Barack and Michelle Obama allow the audience to connect with these paintings and demonstrated once more that art is for everyone. In fact, promoting accessibility to art is a growing trend. Recently, the High Museum of Art has been hosting more exhibitions meant to encourage art viewing as an activity accessible to more people rather than an exclusive event. In the past five years, exhibitions like Virgil Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” and Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” have drawn large crowds to the High Museum. 

The CATlanta JanTerm recently hosted the director of the High Museum, Randall Suffolk, who discussed the steps the High Museum has taken in the past five years to make the art more accessible for Atlantans. English teacher Jaime Saunders, who taught the CATlanta JanTerm, thinks that the quality of the recent exhibitions and the growing attendance is proof that art is reaching many more people.

“I think that the Obama portraits exhibition is a great example of how the High is making art more approachable to a wider audience, especially in more recent years and exhibitions,” said Saunders. “The emotion of coming to get and see a piece of art like that can really re-energize a passion for art, and I believe that the High is doing a great job of making exhibitions that do that.” 

The Obama Portraits Tour exhibition will be displayed at the High until March 20.