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The crowd-pulling power of the Obama portraits

6 March 2018

On a recent drizzly Saturday in Washington, D.C., an orderly line of people stood waiting for hours to have an audience with the president. Not the current president, but the last one – and not the person, but the portrait. Since their public unveiling on 12 February, the official portraits of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have drawn record-smashing crowds to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Amid the often staid and sedate arts scene of the U.S. capital city, viewing the two portraits, by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, has turned into a cultural event – one defined by an irresistible confluence of politics, celebrity, representation, and social media.

In a city where more than 90 per cent of voters chose Barack Obama in both of his elections (and where just 4 per cent of votes went to the man currently occupying the White House), it’s perhaps little surprise that the former president and first lady still draw tremendous crowds. While the portrait gallery was the eighth most popular Smithsonian museum in terms of visits in 2017, in February 2018 it leapt to third place – just behind the perennially popular Air and Space and Natural History Museums on the National Mall. This leap has occurred at a moment when the ‘Trump Slump’ has been blamed for causing a decline in international tourism to the U.S., with cities like New York this year forecast to experience sharp drops in visitors that museums will surely have to confront. The Obama portraits have allowed the National Portrait Gallery to buck the trend, providing a fitting bookend to an era inaugurated with Shepard Fairey’s iconic ‘Hope’ image.

For many Americans, the Obamas continue to represent the nation we hope to be, and the couple was canny enough to choose artists who would capture their magnetism. Sherald’s Michelle Obama sits regally against a sea of ice blue, her cataract of a dress cascading down and out of frame; her lavender nail polish popping against the charcoal-toned skin that has become the artist’s trademark. Meanwhile, Wiley’s informally dressed Barack Obama gazes at us, stern yet fatherly, against a riot of verdure and flora. Now placed among the indistinguishable array of bewigged and bearded white men in the institution’s gallery of America’s presidents, Wiley’s portrait is as audacious and memorable as the promise (if not always the reality, as cultural critic Vinson Cunningham argued in the New Yorker) of the man it depicts.

While it’s hard to begrudge a free museum its boon (the number of people who visited the gallery on the holiday weekend after the portraits were unveiled was more than three times greater than that recorded last year at the same time), the commissioning and display of this pair of celebrity portraits has its downsides for museumgoers. The Washington Post reported that the museum had arranged for two lines to be formed for each portrait, one for viewing and one for taking pictures, but both times I visited there was only one line. Thus, for those visitors who desire to have a gander at the paintings without taking a selfie, prospects for not queuing are grim. Linger near Wiley’s portrait without waiting in the selfie line and you’ll quickly be ushered along your way.

All this hoopla makes one wonder when viewing a painting became secondary to standing in front of a picture and turning away from it to look into the lens of a camera. To be sure, plenty of people look at the portraits, but when several hundred or so people are waiting behind you, you look, take a selfie to prove you were there, and move on. This is, after all, as close as most of us are going to get to having a selfie with the Obamas themselves. And there is added delight in the fact that these two portraits have generated many thousands more self-portraits. Peruse the #obamaportrait tag on Instagram and you’ll find the same paintings in varying filters with people of varying ages and genders and colors in front of them. It’s a new national portrait gallery.