Obama portraits projected on Chicago’s Merchandise Mart ahead of tour

"The Obamas have in some ways defined Chicago," Art Institute director James Rondeau said.

Digital versions of the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama were projected on to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart this week and will continue every night through September as part of a national tour. 

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. organized a five-city tour that begins June 18 at the Art Institute in Chicago, where the portraits will be displayed for about two months, until Aug. 15, before heading to other cities, PEOPLE reports. The Art Institute of Chicago is also where Barack and Michelle went on their first date.

The digital versions will light up the Merchandise Mart building through Sept. 16 from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., with a musical score accompanying the works, according to the report. 

(Photo: Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald)

“It’s now almost mythical that the president and the first lady had their first date here,” Art Institute director James Rondeau said. “President Obama, the first Black president. Michelle Obama, the first Black first lady. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the first Black artists chosen to represent the official portraits for the National Portrait Gallery.”

As theGRIO previously reported, both of the Obamas have written about the genesis of their relationship in their memoirs, Becoming and Promised Land, and have talked about it in numerous interviews. “It was a cool date. We spent the whole day together. He was showing me all facets of his character. So we went to the Art Institute,” said the former First Lady.

Barack And Michelle Obama Attend Portrait Unveiling At Nat'l Portrait Gallery theGrio.com
In 2018, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama stand next to their newly unveiled portraits during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“This is a Chicago story,” Rondeau said. “Chicago has defined in some ways the Obamas. The Obamas have in some ways defined Chicago.”

“It was particularly exciting that Chicago was chosen to be the very first stop and it’s something that we really want to honor, because the Obamas and Chicago are inextricably linked,” Art Institute Director of Interpretation Emily Fry recently told PEOPLE. “This is the location that has shaped the arc of their professional lives, and it’s where they started their family. It’s a homecoming.”

Visitors to the Chicago installation will see the paintings on display side-by-side for the first time since their unveiling in 2018. 

“All that iconicity around power and celebrity is there, but also they’re incredibly accessible,” Rondeau said.

“These are obviously portraits of service, they’re portraits of power, they’re portraits, let’s be honest, of international, really global, celebrities of the highest order,” Rondeau added.

After their stay in Chicago, the Obama Portraits will continue on to the Brooklyn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Atlanta’s High Museum and then Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

The Obamas’ portraits — Barack’s created by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle’s by Amy Sherald were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in 2018 and are the first official portraits of a president and first lady portraits painted by Black artists. At the tour exhibits, there will be audio and visual materials, educational workshops and presentations, according to the National Portrait Gallery website. 

The tour is expected to last until May 2022. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Art Institute of Chicago website.

theGRIO’s Sytonia Reid contributed to this report.

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