When the MFA opened Thursday morning, a line already stretched out the door — museum members waiting to get an early glimpse of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Or rather, to get a glimpse of their iconic portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.
The MFA is the seventh and last stopof “The Obama Portraits Tour,” a traveling exhibition of the paintings, which were commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. They have shown in select cities around the country since June 2021; the paintings will return to the NPG, which organized the tour, after the Boston exhibit closes Oct. 30.
Among those in line for the museum’s member preview were Linda Sullivan, a yoga teacher from Lowell who was “just really anxious to see them”; Imad Salim, a retiree from Burlington who said he loved the way Wiley painted Obama’s gaze; and 12-year-old Makaiah Shira, from Roxbury. Shira particularly liked how President Obama was “sitting down, instead of standing up and showing importance. . . . It’s not like, ‘I’m better than you.’”
The MFA is unveiling the Obama portraits on Saturday to the general public in the Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery. Complementing them is a new “Portraits of Leadership” exhibit set up in the hall just outside the Torf gallery and in the Sharf Visitor Center. This crowd-sourced collection boasts more than 2,600 portraits of leaders of all stripes submitted by community members.
Mariel Novas, the newly hired chief of Learning and Community Engagement, said the “Obama Portraits” exhibit is opening during “a forward-looking moment for the museum,” which is working “to ensure that we are a museum for all of Boston, that folks who have traditionally not seen themselves welcomed here or represented here know and feel that they can walk through our doors — and this is their home, too.”
As part of that effort, the MFA is also rebranding, with a new logo and website.
The museum’s Senior Director of Brand Strategy Elizabeth Gildersleeve noted the museum has “done away with unpaid internships” and now offers paid internship programs for high school students, which Gildersleeve hopes will serve as a “pipeline” for young people to break into the fine art world.
A team of high schoolers within the MFA’s new Curatorial Study Hall internship program curated the “Portraits in Leadership” gallery, which features the 5x7 portraits of leaders, including Mayor Michelle Wu, the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, a local pastor, and activist Malala Yousafzai.
“Every site on the [”Obama Portraits Tour”] got the chance to put their own spin on the exhibition,” Novas explained.
This is the first time the MFA has used a crowd-sourcing process for works on display without a contest or selection aspect, said the museum’s Director of Public Relations Karen Frascona; all of the physical submissions they received now hang on the museum walls.
The MFA also received 200 digital submissions, which are available to view online and will be displayed on screens near the physical portraits.
Reto Thüring, Chair of the Department of Contemporary Art who curated the “Obama Portraits” in the Torf gallery, noted the two paintings are a “striking departure” from previous presidential portraits; for one, they don’t depict the Obamas in a real-life setting. Wiley’s portrait shows Barack Obama sitting in a chair surrounded by a verdant background of leaves and flowers, including chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), and African blue lilies that pay tribute to Obama’s late Kenyan father.
Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama situates her against a simple, light-blue background in a geometric gown (the actual version was designed by Milly) that fills about a third of the painting.
Sherald and Wiley were the first Black American artists to be commissioned by the NPG to create official portraits of a president and first lady. They succeeded in “introducing a whole new language into that tradition,” Thüring said. “When you look at the history and tradition of American presidential portraits, that’s a pretty boring tradition — even for me, as someone who’s interested in portraiture and has a way of detecting some of the more nuanced differences.”
Sherald, for example, broke from presidential portraiture’s tradition by painting Michelle Obama’s skin in gray-scale. The choice was a way of recognizing that “African Americans appeared more frequently and earlier in photography than they did in painting, which was a less accessible, more expensive medium,” Thüring explained.
Novas, who identifies as Afro-Latina and immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic when she was 5, spoke to the significance of seeing the portraits in person. She attended Yale and Harvard for her undergraduate and graduate education, she said; everywhere she went she “would look up, and it was portraits of old white men, certainly not young women of color like me.”
“Not seeing yourself in the spaces you inhabit creates a feeling of invisibility,” she said. “You have to fight that much harder to believe that it is possible for you to be great.”
Sonya Tanae Fort, a Brockton native, works as a professional photographer and submitted a portrait of leadership that’s currently hanging in the museum: a black-and-white photograph of her parents, now in their early 80s.
Fort took the photo for her parents’ 61st wedding anniversary in 2017, and when she told them she’d submitted it to the MFA, they were “wary,” she said. “We shouldn’t be there,” she recalled them saying.
Fort had felt that way, too, she said, but “it was kind of shocking for me to hear that they felt they didn’t belong there, either — who wanted to see them, who wanted to hear about them?”
Her parents “came from just about nothing,” Fort said, noting that her father hid the fact that he’d had to drop out of school to work, and can’t read or write anything but his and his wife’s name.
“We all had a good cry together,” Fort said. “I’m no longer ashamed, I no longer feel like I have to hide them or their background. . . . I told them that I wanted the world to see them. I felt like if anyone belonged there, it was them.”