The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama are on tour across the country this year. They will return to the National Portrait Gallery late in 2022. I visited the exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta in March 2022. Here are some pictures and notes from the Obama portraits tour and my visit to the High.
Planning to see the Obama portraits, I thought about what the portraits meant to me. This was my generation’s turn presenting a leader for the greatest country on earth, and Obama did the job so very well. I believe Mr. and Mrs. Obama served the country with empathy and intelligence, with touches of humor and always with grace.
I expected to experience the portraits as art, iconic renderings of icons. The unexpected part of the tour was seeing what the portraits meant to others. I walked through the gallery, read the descriptive signs about the artists and process, then I stood in the back and just people watched.
Observing families and school groups patiently take their turns in front of the portraits was a moment where I could feel my heart expanding in my chest. People interacting with art like they interact with family. It’s been so long, let’s take a selfie. Parents with young children, marking the moment, just like countless snaps with friends and family.
Following are my notes on the exhibit, plus a walk through my favorite galleries at the High.
Barack Obama’s Portrait
First up: Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama. I notice a couple of things here ~ like the way the President leans in. That just says so much, right? Not talking at the moment, just leaning in and listening. And second, the flowers, of course! Wiley employs the language of flowers to visually convey Obama’s story.
The blooms include white jasmine for his birth state of Hawaii, purple African lily for his Kenyan heritage, and chrysanthemums for the city of Chicago where he started his career. You’ll find rose buds, the symbol of love and courage, in there, too.
Kehinde Wiley’s portrait style is noted for detailed backgrounds. The High permanent collection includes another Wiley portrait, see further below.
Michelle Obama’s Portrait
My photo doesn’t do justice to this stunning portrait. The artist is Amy Sherald and she’s noted for her grayscale skin tone technique. Gee’s Bend quilts inspired Michelle Obama’s dress in the portrait. The designer Michelle Smith created the dress for her label Milly. (And you can see examples of Gee’s Bend quilts in the Folk Art collection at the High.)
If you have the opportunity to see the Obama portraits on tour across the country or when they’re back home at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C., take the time to discover them. Bring your family, take the selfies and make the memories.
More from the High Museum of Art
The High Museum is an unusually open and easy to navigate space. It’s a Richard Meier design, and notable also for its inclusion in the film that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world, Manhunter (1986). In that movie, the High was a psychiatric prison.
These days (IRL), the High’s atrium is colorful and inviting. Here’s a few pix from my morning at the High Museum.
^^^Kehinde Wiley portrait in the permanent collection. Note the detailed background and bold color palette.
^^^ One of my favorite people watching spots is from the bench at the … I don’t know what this sculpture is properly called. I think of it as the selfie mirror. The gallery is often packed with patrons taking their turn to look into the glass and take their selfies in front of it. While I was there, in a nearly empty gallery, a group of teen girls walked up to it, couldn’t decide how to get their group all in one shot, and asked me to take their pic. Happy to oblige.
^^^Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s Untitled is another piece that begs for a photo. It’s like mirrored angel wings. I attempted a selfie, but its placement high in a corner required far more iPhone photo savvy than I could muster. Note to self: return with teenager.
The Folk Art gallery seemed the natural progression after the Obamas and the Modern Gallery. The eyes in Howard Finster’s works just jump out, right?
^^^Howard. Finster. Man of vision and visions.
^^^Mary Proctor, First American Family and President in the White House, 2008-2016.
The sky was just as blue outside. Pic of Lichtenstein House III, of course. This was just a week before the cherry tree bloomed.