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The Michelle Obama portrait. Painted by Amy Sherald. and The Barrack Obama portrait. Painted by Kehinde Wiley.

Obama portraits come to Houston, Gators visit for free

By Anita Goolcharan

The Obama portraits have arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts- Houston and will be on display until May 30.

Tickets to the Obama Portraits tour are included with general admission. UHD Students can attend the event for free with a student ID.

The portraits were first unveiled in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in February 2018. The official portrait of President Barack Obama was painted by Kehinde Wiley and First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait was painted by Amy Sherald.

The process of the portraits was quite extensive and took over two years to curate.

The National Portrait Gallery recommended 15 artists to the White House which the Obamas then selected artists to interview.

Mrs. Obama selected Sherald and President Obama selected Wiley, but their decisions remained secret until late 2017 when the news was brought to light, sparking anticipation and numerous responses from the public.

The National Portrait Gallery has commissioned the painting of each outgoing president since 1994. Wiley and Sherald made history as the first Black portraitists for the National Portrait Gallery.

The portraits are also important in that they break from the outdated tradition of formal portraits.

Both Wiley and Sherald are committed to reframing Black figures in portraiture and their works have sparked conversations concerning inclusivity and representation in American art.

Inspired by the 18th and 19th century European style paintings of aristocratic and historic individuals, Wiley has constructed the presidential portrait to reflect these themes.

He also created a Federal-Revival style in his work as he paints President Obama leaning forward in a chair, symbolic of democracy, while highlighting his casual appearance without a tie, reminiscent of his portrayal as a man of the people.

The background of the portrait serves just as much meaning to the portrait as the subject. Wiley incorporated flowers into the background that stand out from the leaves.

The African blue lilies represent, the Kenyan heritage of the president. The white jasmine, the official flower of Hawaii, is reminiscent of the childhood and birthplace of Obama.

The last flower depicted, the chrysanthemum, the official flower of Chicago, pays homage to the start of the president’s career as a community organizer and a senator for Illinois from 2005 to 2008.

Sherald’s portrait of Mrs. Obama is influenced from Sherald’s appreciation of historical black and white photography.

Her use of grayscale also draws inspiration from W.E.B. Du Bois’ compilation of Black Americans from the 1900 Paris Exposition.

The use of grayscale represents the intentional erasure of Black subjects in portraiture. The style was the subject of criticism when the portrait was first revealed.

“Anything that comes along with something that’s very public is going to bring along some criticism,” Sherald expressed at a community club house.

“I thought I was ready for it, but after 48 hours…. I was like, ‘People are crazy.’”

Sherald explains that her work has a visual effect that “does not carry on Instagram” as she talked about a common experience among viewers.

“A lot of people were like, ‘I didn’t like it and then went to go see it.’ And they wrote me back to say, ‘it made me cry,’” Sherald told the attendees of the community center.

The First Lady is depicted as relatable and confident in her portrait. Her expression contrasts President Obama, pictured with a contemplative expression whereas he has an openness in his facial expression.

The dress the First Lady wore for the portrait was designed by Michelle Smith. It is known as the Milly Gown. It draws inspiration from quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

The patterns in the gown carry a personal meaning as the quilting community consists of descendants of enslaved Africans that have carried on the tradition of quilting for generations.

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Last updated 4/28/2022 7:15 AM