Barack and Michelle Obama portraits on display at de Young museum

By OBSERVER Newsroom

The presidential portraits of Barack Obama and his first lady, Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in February 2018. It was the first time African American artists, Kehinde Wiley, left, and Amy Sherald, far right, had been hired to create the works.  Photo by Pete Souza.

The Obamas are in the Bay Area. Portraits of the nation’s first Black president and former first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, are on display thanks to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. 

The portraits will be on view at the de Young museum from June 18 to August 14. San Francisco is the only stop in Northern California on the portraits’ nationwide tour.  

The portraits were created by contemporary artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the first African American artists commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to paint official presidential portraits. The installation also includes an eight-minute video featuring the curator and artists discussing the historical and artistic significance of the portraits.

“Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama are groundbreaking American portraits that speak to the sense of hope and possibility that the Obamas inspire,” said Tom Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

“Both Wiley and Sherald are artists who work within the genre of Western portraiture painting, while actively expanding and critiquing artistic conventions that have traditionally defined representations of power,” Campbell continued.

The two paintings present a striking contrast to the formality of earlier presidential portraits and images of first ladies. Wiley placed a seated President Obama—gazing forward to capture the viewer’s attention—against a backdrop of flowers with special significance in the life of the President and his family. Included are chrysanthemums as the official flower of Chicago; jasmine, which pays homage to the sitter’s birthplace and upbringing in Hawaii; and purple African lilies, which are native to Kenya. Sherald depicted the former First Lady against a light-blue background in a contemplative pose. Her dress, by Milly designer Michelle Smith, carries meaning as well, referring to both the modernist traditions of abstract art and the traditional patterned quilts of the Gee’s Bend community in Alabama.

Through the presentation of these now-iconic works by Wiley and Sherald, the exhibition contemplates how portraiture has given visual form to ideas of power, identity, status, and legacy throughout history. At the de Young, the roughly life-size portraits will be presented in a gallery adjacent to the museum’s American Art collection. 

The first Black artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint official portraits of a President and First Lady, Wiley and Sherald have throughout their careers consistently addressed the lacunae of Black representation in Western art history, using portraiture to explore complex issues of identity that transcend the individual pictured. The Obama Portraits are rendered in the artists’ signature styles.

Sherald is an artist based in the Greater New York area whose work documents contemporary African American experience in the United States through arresting, otherworldly portraits. In 2016, Sherald was the first woman and first African American to receive first prize in the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition held by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Sherald has also received a 2019 Smithsonian Ingenuity Award.

Kehinde Wiley, was born in Los Angeles, but is a New York City and Senegal-based artist well known for creating vibrant, large-scale paintings of contemporary African Americans in the tradition of European portraiture. Wiley typically portrays people of color posing as famous figures in Western art. Through this practice, he challenges the visual rhetoric of power that is dominated by elite White men. In 2019, Wiley established Black Rock, a multidisciplinary artist-in-residence program in Dakar, Senegal.

The Obama Portraits are part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, which holds the nation’s only complete collection of portraits of U.S. presidents that is accessible to the public. The Portrait Gallery began commissioning presidential portraits in 1994, with George H.W. Bush. It commissioned its first portrait of a First Lady in 2006, with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Originally a five-city endeavor, which commenced in Chicago on June 18, 2021, “The Obama Portraits Tour” was extended by popular demand to include two additional cities with presentations by the de Young museum in San Francisco, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2022. 

There are a number of public programs planned in conjunction with the exhibit. On Sat., June 18: Opening Day Celebration from 12 noon to 3:00 p.m. Celebration includes live music by cellist/vocalist Mia Pixley, dance performances from Kimberly Olivier and a free portrait session.

On Sat., June 25: Power and Creativity in Portraiture with First Exposures from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Immerse yourself in the power of portraiture with First Exposures, a nationally recognized youth photography mentoring program in the San Francisco Bay Area. View the 28-year retrospective of youth work focusing on portraiture and participate in a pop up portrait studio inspired by the Obama Portraits with First Exposures alumni. 

On Sat., July 30: Art, Fashion, Activism with Youth Art Exchange from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Enjoy an exclusive viewing of art and fashion inspired by the themes of the Obama Portraits Tour. Hear from youth activists at the forefront of social justice. 

On Sat., August 6: Poetry and Storytelling with 826 Valencia and Oakland Poet Laureate from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Listen to powerful poems written by Bay Area youth in response to the Obama Portraits and works from the museum’s permanent collection and learn unique ways of expression.

The Obama Portraits Tour tickets will be free on June 18 and 19, on a first-come, first-served basis. Limit 4 per family, space is limited. Free admission to The Obama Portraits Tour is underwritten by Google.

The de Young is open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. The Obama Portraits is included in general admission to the de Young museum, with free admission for San Francisco Bay Area residents every Saturday. 

For more, please visit deyoungmuseum.org. For more on the Portrait Gallery and the full tour schedule, visit npg.si.edu/obamaportraitstour.

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