On Sunday, April 3, The Obama Portraits Tour opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Thousands of Houstonians welcomed the official portraits of President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama at a “Sunday Best” celebration. The event featured musical performances, including Texas Southern University’s Ocean of Soul marching band, and remarks from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, a close acquaintance of the Obamas. As the most diverse city in the nation, Houston is the ideal location to display these portraits and to celebrate the historic occasion.
“The MFAH is excited to provide our visitors the opportunity to experience the power and beauty of these celebrated works.”
— Gary Tinterow, Director and Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The paintings, commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, are the first official presidential portraits by African American artists. With these two works of art, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald re-envisioned the centuries-long tradition of representing political leaders.
Historically, presidential paintings are traditional and conservative. Wiley and Sherald deviated from that custom, adding a contemporary twist to the portraits and personalizing them to share the Obamas’ identities and legacies. Wiley placed Barack Obama against a backdrop of colorful flowers, each representing an important part of the president’s identity, childhood, and cultural background. Sherald’s depiction of Michelle Obama’s dress, by Milly designer Michelle Smith, carries meaning as well, referring to both the Modernist traditions of abstract art and the patterned quilts of Gee’s Bend.
Through the presentation of these now-iconic portraits by Wiley and Sherald, the exhibition contemplates how portraiture has given visual form to ideas of power, identity, status, and legacy throughout history.
Picture yourself at the MFAH this spring. See the acclaimed paintings in person, before they travel to the de Young Museum in San Francisco (June 18 to August 14) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (September 3 to October 30). The Obama Portraits Tour is on view in Houston for a limited time—only through Memorial Day, May 30. The exhibition is included with general admission. Advance timed tickets are recommended, so plan your visit and buy your general admission tickets early at mfah.org/tickets to secure your preferred time slot.