Recent Comments

    The Obama Portraits Tour Includes Historic Work by Out Gay Artist

    A much-needed injection of hope will come to San Francisco this June when The Obama Portraits Tour opens at the de Young museum on June 18. The installation will feature the portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. Wiley and Sherald are the first Black artists selected to create presidential portraits, and Wiley is also the first out gay artist to earn this distinction.

    Hope refers not just to the word featured on former President Obama’s memorable first presidential campaign poster (designed by Shepard Fairey of the Shepard Fairey Equality Project benefiting LGBTQ rights), but also to significant shifts toward social justice marked by the Obama presidency and its legacy, as well as to Wiley and Sherald’s achievements. Portraits can sometimes reveal as much about their creators as they do about their subjects, evidenced by the visually striking paintings of the Obamas.

    Re-Envisioning Representations of Political Leaders

    Tom Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco says, “Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama are groundbreaking American portraits that speak to the sense of hope and possibility that the Obamas inspire. Both Wiley and Sherald are artists who work within the genre of Western portraiture painting, while actively expanding, and critiquing artistic conventions that have traditionally defined representations of power. We are thrilled that Bay Area audiences will have the opportunity to experience these powerful, iconic paintings in person at the de Young museum.”

    The Obama Portraits Tour is an opportunity to bring the power of portraiture to different audiences across the nation,” says Kim Sajet, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery that organized the tour. “Portraiture is incomplete without the viewer and these paintings have elicited responses that range from deep contemplation to pure joy. 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.”

    The paintings were commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and unveiled on February 12, 2018, in the presence of the Obamas and the artists. Wiley and Sherald worked independently from each other. In painting these two portraits, however, they effectively re-envisioned the centuries-long tradition of representing political leaders. Before photography, painted portraits often served as the primary image of a U.S. president.

    Inclusions of Personal Significance to the Obamas

    The two paintings present a noted contrast to the formality of earlier presidential portraits and images of first ladies. Both artists worked in close consultation with their sitters and used photographs as working tools as they planned their compositions. Wiley placed a seated President Obama—gazing forward to capture the viewer’s attention—against a backdrop of flowers with special significance in the life of the former president and his family. Included are chrysanthemums as the official flower of Chicago; jasmine, which pays homage to the sitter’s birthplace and upbringing in Hawaii; and purple African lilies, which are native to Kenya.

    Sherald depicted the former First Lady against a light-blue background in a contemplative pose. Her dress, by Milly designer Michelle Smith, carries meaning as well, referring both to the modernist traditions of abstract art and to the traditional patterned quilts of the isolated, rural Gee’s Bend community in Alabama. Enslaved women began quilting there in the 19th century due to a physical need for warmth, yet even those earliest works hold artistic as well as historic and emotional meaning to viewers today.

    Through the presentation of these now-iconic works by Wiley and Sherald, the exhibition contemplates how portraiture has given visual form to ideas of power, identity, status, and legacy throughout history. At the de Young, the large portraits will be presented in a gallery adjacent to the museum’s American Art collection. The de Young’s holdings—one of the cornerstone collections of American art in the United States—include more than one-thousand paintings spanning from the 17th century to the present, and a number of portraits by historical artists.

    Images of Lasting Value, Inspiring Contemplation

    Another aspect of hope for us at the San Francisco Bay Times concerning The Obama Portraits Tour is that the paintings represent and contribute to the lasting importance of the Obamas, who are still active and influential leaders. The portraits, which will continue to draw widespread interest, will also hopefully encourage viewers of all generations to appreciate this artform and the quiet, meaningful contemplation it can inspire. In an era of here today, gone tomorrow Snapchat selfies, the Obama portraits provide a refreshing reminder that thoughtfully presented images can hold lasting importance and be of great value. We strive for at least the former with our biweekly publication and its team of designers, led by talented Beth Greene, and photography team led by legendary Rink.

    Wiley’s painting, which is a towering 84.1″ x 58″ oil on canvas work, presents the 44th president in near life-size form. Viewing it in person offers a palpable experience of magnitude in all respects. The painting promotes intense study to appreciate all of its details, from the bold to subtle. The same holds true for Sherald’s work, which is a 72.1″ x 60.1″ oil on linen. To further inform viewers and to add another sensory component, the installation will include an eight-minute-long video featuring the curator and artists discussing the historical and artistic significance of the portraits.

    About the Artists

    The first Black artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint official portraits of a president and first lady, Wiley and Sherald have throughout their careers consistently addressed the lacunae of Black representation in Western art history, using portraiture to explore complex issues of identity that transcend the individual pictured. The Obama Portraits are rendered in the artists’ signature styles.

    Amy Sherald
    Amy Sherald (b. 1973, Columbus, Georgia) is an artist based in the Greater New York area whose work documents contemporary African American experience in the United States through arresting, otherworldly portraits. Sherald subverts the medium of portraiture to tease out unexpected narratives, inviting viewers to engage in a more complex debate about accepted notions of race and representation, and to situate Black heritage centrally in the story of American art. In 2016, Sherald was the first woman and first African American to receive first prize in the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition held by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Sherald has also received a 2019 Smithsonian Ingenuity Award. In addition to her painting practice, Sherald has worked for almost two decades alongside socially committed creative initiatives. In this capacity, she has taught art in prisons and developed art projects with teenagers.

    Kehinde Wiley
    Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977, Los Angeles) is a New York City and Senegal-based artist well known for creating vibrant, large-scale paintings of contemporary African Americans in the tradition of European portraiture. He earned a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale University School of Art in 2001 and gained national recognition when he was still in his twenties. The Brooklyn Museum presented Wiley’s first major museum exhibition in 2004, and in 2015, organized Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, a mid-career retrospective that traveled to six cities nationwide. Wiley typically portrays people of color posing as famous figures in Western art. Through this practice, he challenges the visual rhetoric of power that is dominated by elite white men. In 2019, Wiley established Black Rock, a multidisciplinary artist-in-residence program in Dakar, Senegal.

    About the Tour

    The Obama Portraits are part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, which holds the nation’s only complete collection of portraits of U.S. presidents that is accessible to the public. The Portrait Gallery began commissioning presidential portraits in 1994, with George H.W. Bush. It commissioned its first portrait of a first lady in 2006, with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Originally a five-city endeavor, which commenced in Chicago on June 18, 2021, The Obama Portraits Tour was extended by popular demand to include two additional cities with presentations this year at the de Young here as well as at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For more on the Portrait Gallery and the full tour schedule, visit

    The de Young is open Tuesday–Sunday, 9:30 am–5:15 pm. The Obama Portraits Tour, which after it’s opening will run through August 14, will be included in general admission to the de Young museum, with free admission for San Francisco Bay Area residents every Saturday.

    Published on April 7, 2022