The Pilgrims Coming to See the Obama Portraits, All Year Long

In April 2018, the artist Wendy MacNaughton posted a picture titled Dispatch From DC on Instagram. It was a clever ink-and-watercolor drawing showing Rhonda, a security guard at the National Portrait Gallery, next to the newly unveiled portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. In a hand-printed caption, Rhonda is quoted recounting how an elderly lady had gotten on her knees and prayed in front of the portrait in the company of other visitors: “No other painting gets the same kind of reactions. Ever.”

The image made the rounds online, which was not entirely surprising, because immediately after the unveiling of the Obama portraits, the museum’s attendance had tripled. A month before MacNaughton posted her drawing, 2-year-old Parker Curry had been captured on a smartphone gazing in awe at Michelle Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald. The resulting media sensation had led the girl’s mother to hire a publicist to manage all the requests for interviews. Mrs. Obama, Parker told Ellen DeGeneres in front of a live national audience, was probably a “queen.”

As the director of the National Portrait Gallery, I had front-row seats to this “Obama effect,” and was trying to manage my dream scenario of watching thousands of visitors pouring through the doors. MacNaughton’s illustration confirmed what I had begun to suspect: Viewing these paintings was turning into a form of secular pilgrimage, and the museum was becoming even more popular as a communal gathering place. The question I asked myself, given that we had hundreds of portraits of notable Americans from George Washington to Beyoncé, was Why? What was really happening?

Pilgrimage has been described as one of the oldest forms of tourism, undertaken by the faithful of all the world’s major religions to restore a sense of order and meaning to their everyday lives. Anthropologists have suggested that such a journey involves people leaving the familiarity of home and undergoing a liminal experience, a disorienting voyage—to Mecca since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, or Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, for example—that brings them to the threshold of spiritual change. In their heightened psychological awareness, pilgrims develop a sense of communitas, in which strangers on the same journey feel a sense of kinship with one another, allowing cultures to cross paths both real and symbolic. They return home with a renewed sense of hope.

At first, pilgrimage was understood as religious, but later

Source:: The Atlantic – Culture


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