Portraits, like real people, are demanding. They require not just face-to-face interaction, but deep contemplation of how the artists have brought their sitters to life.
The question is why? Visitors know who the Obamas are, and what they look like. They’ve seen digital images of the portraits on their phones and laptops.
A visitor to the National Portrait Gallery takes a photo. Credit: Paul Morigi
One online review of Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama offers one theory: “The colors are stunning and aren’t done justice in the digital photography I’ve seen in the media.” As the review suggests, you can’t truly experience a portrait until you lift your head away from the device in your hand and look at the real thing. No matter how many reproductions you may have seen online, the original art is always far more profound in person.
The Portrait Gallery, specifically, has provided a place for people to take a break from their often-harried lives and connect with two people they admire, either alone or in the company of others, before returning to the relentless pace of the “real world.”
Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald
However, there is also, I believe, another force turning the museum into a meaningful place of social interaction, and that is technology — or rather, the lack of it.
Ironically, for perhaps two of the most recognized people on the planet, it is paint not pixels, and conversations not cameras that make “visiting” Barack and Michelle Obama feel authentic. People often take selfies in front of the portraits as souvenirs of their visit, but I’ve noticed with interest how many of them then put away their devices and talk to each other.
“A genuine self can’t be in two places at once,” he observed, noting that true friendships have a better chance of success when they begin in defined social spaces where a certain behavior requires your full attention.
Amy Sherald at her Baltimore studio in late 2017. Credit: Jati Lindsay / Amy Sherald
In the case of the Obama portraits, visitors have to use both their head and their heart to make personal connections while taking account of their surroundings. For example, there are similarities between the portrait of Barack Obama and the seated compositions of other former US Presidents Abraham Lincoln, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and George W. Bush.
Yet, there are vast differences, like Wiley’s fresh take on official portraiture by incorporating floral symbols that relate to the former president’s life: chrysanthemums for Chicago, jasmine for Hawaii, African lilies for Kenya and roses for love. Reading the labels, or taking a guided tour with other people, is part of an interactive experience that transcends technology.
Kehinde Wiley pictured working on the portrait of Barack Obama in 2017. Credit: Ain Cocke/Kehinde Wiley
There was once a time when I used to beat myself up that the National Portrait Gallery wasn’t as technologically advanced as its peers. We didn’t have audio guides and are just now introducing a free app to offer multiple languages and support for the visually impaired, rather than as an essential in-gallery tool.
But now I realize, as I walk around the museum, that its lack of technologies might, in fact, be adding to the liminal experience, helping us set aside our “digital selves” in order to connect with our “inner selves” and commune with those around us.