ATLANTA (WGCL) — The Obama portraits have arrived to Atlanta’s Midtown’s High Museum of Art as part of a five-city, year-long tour around the nation’s major cities.
The iconic artwork, which has attracted millions of art admirers since its unveiling in 2018, offers a contemporary take on what has historically been a traditional presidential portrait.
But the exhibition is more than two paintings in a large room. The High Museum tells the stories of the Black artists who captured the Obamas in a way the world had never seen before.
Georgia native and Clark-Atlanta University alumni Amy Sherald is the face behind the iconic six-foot-tall painting of Michelle Obama, which captures the former first lady in a flowing colorful dress reminiscent of the quilts of Gee’s Bend. Her skin, notably painted in gray-scale, is not only a response to early portraits of African Americans but also reminds viewers of the absence of Black people in the history of large-scale photography. Sherald’s approach is to challenge her viewer to look beyond the superficial differences of race.
During its initial unveiling, the former first lady said:
“I’m thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who, in years ahead, will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution. I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls and, when I think about those future generations and generations past, I think, again, wow.”
Barack Obama’s seven-foot-tall portrait, portrayed by Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley, shows the president sitting before a lush green backdrop with distinct flowers appearing throughout the painting. But, as the exhibition shows, the artwork is more than meets the eye.
For Wiley, the portrait tells a story. The jasmine flower references Hawai’i, where the former president was born. The African blue lilies; a tribute to Obama’s father who was from Kenya. Vibrant chrysanthemums are on full display as the official flower of Chicago, the meeting place of Michelle and Barack and the city where his political career took flight.
Wiley’s take on Obama celebrates true contemporary art while acknowledging tradition. The vivid backdrop juxtaposed with a stately pose and historical wooden chair emphasizes an approach to portraiture that’s for the modern age.
High Museum’s Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Michael Rooks says he hopes people see themselves both in the artwork of the Obamas and the stories of the artists who brought them to life.
“I hope people walk away with the idea that portraiture is alive and well and is especially relevant today, especially when we think about artists of color and subjects who are reflected in their work. At our venue here in Atlanta, in Georgia’s Black city, it’s important for people to see themselves reflected in what we show in our walls and I think that’s what was important to the curators as well,” said Rooks.
The portraits of the Obamas will be at the High Museum of Art from Jan. 14 until March 20 before heading off to their next destination at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Due to a high demand for this exhibition, an exhibition-specific ticket is required for all visitors.
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