These Portraits Are the O”bomb”a


Portraits of the Obamas have been displayed across the U.S. (Source: Kehinde Wiley & Amy Sherald)

By Eliza Duff-Wender (I), Assistant Editor

By now, almost everyone has heard of former President Barack Obama’s iconic portrait, an embodiment of the American people and an inspiration to the world. From September 3 to October 30, the painting can be found alongside a corresponding portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the seventh and final stop of the portraits’ national tour.

In 2017, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were commissioned to paint portraits of Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, respectively. As the first African American artists to create presidential portraits for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, their roles represent a need for greater inclusion in the art world.

Wiley, based in New York, reflects on how “art is about changing what we see in our everyday lives and representing it in such a way that gives us hope.” This notion resonates in his works, which juxtapose traditional European technique with images of people of color in impressive poses.

Wiley portrays former President Obama sitting in a chair, surrounded by vibrant foliage. Leaning forward with his collar open, he looks as though he is ready to listen — alluding to his agreeability and natural charisma.

Sherald, who is from Georgia, has also developed a style that comments on the historical treatment of African Americans, commenting that “I paint because I am looking for versions of myself in art history and the world.”  She uses grisaille — a technique that uses shades of gray to create depth — to depict the skin tones of her subjects.

In her portrait, the former First Lady sits elegantly, a hand supporting her chin, and her geometrically patterned dress laid out around her. She sits against a pale blue background, a contrast to the primarily black-and-white image. 

The MFA displays both portraits side-by-side with President Obama on the left and Michelle Obama on the right. The portraits are almost life-size, and the exhibit makes the two seem approachable, almost as if they are beckoning viewers to come closer. 

A complementary exhibit, Portraits of Leadership, emphasizes the impact of the Obama portraits. The pictures on view are the products of artists of all ages, from Boston, Massachusetts to Seoul, South Korea. Curated by students from the Curatorial Study Hall, the images reveal leaders of all varieties: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malala Yousafzai, mothers, friends and many more. Jalil Presley Rogers, a sophomore at Cristo Rey Boston High School, says, “These activists, who organize and act to change public policy, can also inspire us to be our own leaders.”

Regular admission is 10 dollars for visitors aged 7 to 17, and entry will be free on October 10 and October 30. If you have some free time after school or during the weekend, head on over to the MFA to check out the Obama portraits.