The instantly iconic official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama—painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively—have lived at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. ever since they were unveiled in 2018. But now the paintings are going on tour throughout the country, and you’ll have the chance to see them in person at the Brooklyn Museum over the next two months.
The Obama Portraits Tour, which has stops in five cities will hit the Brooklyn Museum from August 27th through October 24th. This comes after a stop at the Art Institute of Chicago; after Brooklyn, the paintings will go on to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston over the next six months.
“Since the unveiling of these two portraits of the Obamas, the Portrait Gallery has experienced a record number of visitors, not only to view these works in person but to be part of the communal experience of a particular moment in time,” Kim Sajet, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement. “This tour is an opportunity for audiences in different parts of the country to witness how portraiture can engage people in the beauty of dialogue and shared experiences.”
The New York-based Wiley, and Sherald, became the first African American artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint a presidential couple.
Wiley’s oil-on-canvas portrait of the former president uses a backdrop of leaves and flowers that are symbolic to Obama’s background, including jasmine to reference Hawaii (where Obama was born), African blue lilies to represent Kenya (Obama’s father’s birthplace), and chrysanthemums to represent Chicago (where his political career started).
“He asked me about my relationship to power, and how it is that I would make a portrait that differs from that power dynamic that exists in my work heretofore,” Wiley told NPR in 2018 after the portrait was revealed. “It really came down to, ‘OK, Kehinde, you really do a type of transformation. You take people from everyday life and elevate them to a level of dignity and celebration. What happens when you’re painting the head of the free world? What happens in your language as an artist when you’re dealing with Barack Obama as the subject of this painting?'”
Wiley has several other major pieces around NYC: he hand-painted a glass triptych called Go for the West 33rd Street entrance of Moynihan Train Hall, he installed a bronze sculpture on limestone titled “Rumors of War” in Times Square in 2019, and his oil painting Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005), which features a Black man on horseback a la Jacques-Louis David’s famous Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (1800), is also on display at Brooklyn Museum.
Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama features her in a striking white dress with “a pattern that seems to nod to the geometric art of Piet Mondrian.”
“Michelle Obama is extraordinary, but she is also the kind of woman that exists in a way that she is 100 percent relatable to all kinds of people, all genders, all around the world,” Sherald told NPR. “And so she sits symbolically in the world in the same way I want my images to sit. They are just being themselves. And her just being herself was a profound statement that really engaged all of us because she is just accessible, and I think that she is ideally the same as the sitters that I’ve had before.”
The Obama Portraits Tour is at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy) from August 27th through October 24th. You can get more ticketing info here.