‘The Obama Portraits Tour’ opens at MFA Boston
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are paying a visit to Boston. Well, their images are. Boston is the final stop on “The Obama Portraits Tour,” an exhibition of the presidential portraits of the couple. The portraits will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston through Oct. 30.
The two portraits —Barack Obama, painted by Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle Obama, painted by Amy Sherald — are displayed solo in the exhibition space. Hung low, the paintings feel intimate, almost like you’re having coffee with the couple. These artworks are a groundbreaking departure from the formulaic and traditional aesthetic of presidential portraits past. Not only are they the first presidential portraits painted by Black artists, the pieces are vibrant, colorful and layered with symbolism.
“Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are visionary artists whose paintings both pay homage to and reimagine the centuries-old tradition of American portraiture, which has strong roots in Boston,” says Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund director of the MFA. “It is an honor for us to host their Obama portraits at the MFA and to offer New England audiences a chance to experience these powerful works of art.”
The portraits are accompanied by “Portraits of Leadership: Responses to the Obama Portraits,” a community engagement activation and exhibition of works submitted by people around the world. The Museum of Fine Arts put out a call for works from artists of all ages and backgrounds showcasing a leader in the artist’s life. The result is 2,600 submissions that hang in the hallway next to the Obama exhibit.
“What’s awesome for me is that you have the Obamas in there, and out here you have Mom, you have Dad,” says Dr. Mariel Novas, the Patti and Jonathan Kraft chief of learning and community engagement. “We had submissions from places as near and dear to my heart as Dorchester, all the way to South Korea.”
“Portraits of Leadership” was curated by local teens from the MFA’s Curatorial Study Hall program and illustrates just how many leaders impact our everyday lives. The exhibition balances out the immensity of the Obama portraits, bringing the qualities of a leader back to an accessible level. There are also two additional pieces on view in the Americas Wing of the museum, one by Wiley and one by Sherald, to further illustrate those artists’ work.
Organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the exhibit was originally intended to visit five cities and the capital, but the MFA advocated to be added to the tour. Timed-entry paid tickets are required for this exhibition, but it’s free to enter on the following dates: Monday, Sept. 19; Monday, Oct. 10 (Indigenous Peoples’ Day) and Sunday, Oct. 30.
“We are delighted to be able to extend this experience to San Francisco and Boston for a tour spanning eight cities, with the nation’s capital included,” says Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “Portraiture is incomplete without the viewer, and these paintings have elicited responses that range from deep contemplation to pure joy.”