To see the Presidential portraits of Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama I thought I would have to go to Washington D.C. Not that I had contemplated traveling there just to see these historic paintings, but if I found myself in the capitol for another reason I would be sure to give them a good looking at before I left. As it turns out, I inadvertently willed the paintings to come to the Art Institute of Chicago, which I am a member of, and got to see them up close without the air travel. Actually, the inseparable paintings don't end their 11-month tour in Chicago, but go to New York, LA, Atlanta and Houston through March of 2022, before returning to their permanent home at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The experience was inspiring and hopeful. I was not necessarily parading around during the Obama years lauding their every moves, but I was definitely a fan. When one experiences the horror of 2016-2020 the appreciation of competence increases dramatically, as we all know. I would not go so far as to see an official presidential portrait of George W, even if it was hung at a Walmart near my house, just because his dull shine gained an element of luster during the recent dark years, to be clear. I was there to see my friends, the Obamas.
These paintings Obama are really fantastic. I lost the staring contests with both of them. Barack, confident and approachable, enmeshed in ivy, painted by Kehinde Wiley. It almost seems like if you visited that painting annually the ivy would grow over and around him a bit more each year, signifying the positive growth he set forth, until the only thing of him still visible is his steadfast gaze. And eventually the man himself would become covered over by the work he's done.
Michelle, refined and resilient. Her skin painted in Amy Sherald's signature gray, bucking stereotype and offering a new view and possibility of Blackness. The calm of her face belying the dynamism of a person whose constant motion continues to make things better.
With spoilers of these paintings on banners, buses, and billboards, advertising their presence throughout Chicago, it stole a little of what might have been breathtaking for me. I already knew what both paintings looked like in detail and to sneer down my nose and say, "Yeah, I saw them in person because all of the other versions of them don't do them justice," would be an overstatement. As remarkable as seeing them bigger and up close really was, wasn't the point of my visit, nor was writing this. It was to get a sliver of a feeling of what it might be to share the same room with them and pay proper reverence. Thank them for what was and for what can still be.