Spring Arts Guide 2022

In Living Color: The Obama Portraits Take the MFAH

Houston’s most renowned art institution is a stop on the multi-city American tour.

By Amarie Gipson March 28, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The Obama portraits are coming to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston this April. 

Parker Curry was awestruck. At just 2 years old, she stood with her back turned to her mother gazing at a portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, a woman she referred to as a “queen.” This viral moment exemplifies not only the power of portraiture but the way that the Obama presidency made a huge and hopeful impact on American politics and society.

As part of a multi-city tour organized by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Obama Portraits are headed to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, next week. The tour kicked off at the Art Institute of Chicago and has since traveled to Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Atlanta. The acclaimed portrait duo will make its way to Bayou City for the Obama Portraits Tour, an exhibition opening on April 3 and running through May 30.

 In 2018, two Black American painters, Kehinde Wiley of Los Angeles and Baltimore-born Amy Sherald, were selected by the Obamas to bring a monumental task to life–historicizing the nation’s first Black president through painted portraiture. The resulting images tower in scale, each at 6 and 7 feet tall. 

While past presidential paintings are traditional and conservative, both the former president and first lady are vividly portrayed. Wiley renders Barack Obama in bloom, seated with a concentrated gaze amidst a lush green background with flowers that trace his heritage: African blue lilies, Hawaiian jasmine and chrysanthemums, the native flower of Chicago. Sherald depicts the first lady at ease, resting her head on her hand. She is pictured as her most elegant, poised and graceful self, dressed in a flowing gown with a modern art-inspired design. 

The portraits’ reveal caused a media storm as responses to the Obamas’  highly scrutinized images flooded the internet. President Obama’s selection of Wiley was read as a vicious subversion to the legacy of American visual politics and traditions, while Sherald’s usage of her signature grayscale technique to depict the First Lady’s skin struck a nerve for some of Black America, who felt that she was being rendered without the fullness of her beauty and humanity.

In anticipation of the tour’s arrival in Houston, Memphis-native Anita Bateman, the MFAH’s recently appointed associate curator of modern and contemporary art and the organizing curator for the Houston leg of the tour, is hard at work. The exhibition is her first project at the museum, and she has big plans to create a reflective experience of Obama’s legacy, from the optimistic influence that washed the nation to the relationship between social media and political change. 

Over the course of Obama’s eight-year term, digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram became destinations for public opinion, often sparking debates on racial dynamics and galvanizing protests and political organizing. This important but overlooked link between social media and the Obama presidency, Bateman explained to me over the phone, “was coterminous in an exciting way. I want to capture that burgeoning feeling of being at the precipice of something new. I’m thinking about how social media has influenced the way that politics are perceived; it’s unprecedented.”  

On her hopes for the exhibition’s impact, Bateman says, “I want people to really feel that they can relate to the portraits, and they have the ability to take up space in the same way that the Obamas are taking up space in the galleries.” 

Houston remains one of the most diverse places in the nation and is a major Southern city with one of the highest concentrations of Black people in the South. It’s no wonder that the MFAH was, at one point, selected as the final stop on the tour. The National Portrait Gallery has since extended the tour to San Francisco and Boston. The beloved portraits will return to their home in Washington, DC in early November. 

The Obama Portrait Tour is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from April 3 to May 30, 2022. For tickets and more information, visit here

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