When the official portraits for Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed in 2018, they caused quite a stir. They changed the way the world saw presidential portraits and forced the art world to acknowledge something new. The National Portrait Gallery had record attendance numbers and the Obamas’ impact was once again immeasurable. Now, the process will be explored in a new documentary at Smithsonian Channel.
According to Deadline, Picturing the Obamas premieres Saturday, Sept. 10 and features curators, journalists, and art critics exploring the lasting influence of the portraits, created by Black artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.
Neither Wiley or the former president wanted to do something predictable. Unlike other presidential portraits, which are inspired by a previous work of art, “Wiley and Obama together decided that this composition should be ‘wholly new,’ reflecting Obama’s singular position in history,” per the National Portrait Gallery.
Who can forget the photo of a then two-year-old Parker Curry completely star struck by Michelle Obama’s portrait? Her reaction tells us everything we ever need to know about why representation matters. After the image went viral, her mother Jessica revealed that at the time Parker believed the former first lady was a queen and she wanted to be a queen too. I’m sure this memorable moment will be a pivotal segment of the documentary.
As the portraits travel through various museums, “the film examines the legacy of the first Black president and First Lady through the experiences of everyday people. It follows a Latina community organizer, a young artist from Southside Chicago, and multigenerational members of the oldest Black sorority as they visit the portraits and reflect on the meaning of the Obamas today.”
This doc should be a fascinating and fresh way to not only explore the Obamas’ unmatched legacy, it also proves how important art is. In this case, it offers visitors an opportunity to feel seen and understood through the eyes of the artists and their subjects.
“When we unveiled the Obamas’ portraits, everyone in the room knew we were witnessing a moment in history,” said Kim Sajet, director, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. “But I don’t think anyone anticipated the emotional impact these artworks would ultimately have on so many Americans across the country. Through the power of documentary film, Picturing the Obamas takes us out of the gallery and into communities, reminding us that art is powerful and portraiture can change the world.”
Picturing the Obamas premieres Saturday, Sept. 10 on the Smithsonian Channel.