American portrait painter Kehinde Wiley heads packed programme of public arts for the University of Plymouth

Kehinde Wiley Narrenschiff, 2017. Installation view: Kehinde Wiley: In Search of the Miraculous, solo exhibition, Stephen Friedman Gallery (2017–2018). Copyright Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Photo by Mark Blower. 


An exhibition of work from one of the most acclaimed portrait painters in the world today is heading up the new programme of contemporary art and culture at The Arts Institute.

Kehinde Wiley, famous for his naturalistic portraits including that of President Barack Obama, will be featured in Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools, a four-month exhibition at the University of Plymouth’s The Levinsky Gallery. The exhibition is curated by The Box in partnership with The Arts Institute and Royal Museums Greenwich.

Among a host of other events scheduled for the season include an online exhibition on littering tied to an international scientific conference on microplastics, live-streamed musical evenings, and a festival that brings together writers, artists and researchers to reflect upon our rapidly changing world.

With the effects of the pandemic still being felt (particularly restrictions on gatherings), this will be the first season at The Arts Institute to cater for social distancing and virtual audiences, with some events specially designed to include online public participation. 

Dr Sarah Chapman, Director of The Arts Institute, said:

“The world as we know it has been turned upside down by COVID-19, and that has had a profound impact on all areas of society. But what of art and ‘the arts?’ In times of change we invariably find ourselves looking to artists and writers to relocate ourselves and to make sense of difficult times. Art and culture can bring people together, connecting the individual with larger collective experiences. That theme runs through many of the events in this new programme from The Arts Institute and is also reflected in how we are utilising the internet to safely bring together our audiences.”

The new programme begins with Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools, which will be in The Levinsky Gallery from 29 September until 24 January 2021. The centrepiece is Wiley’s first video installation, a three-channel digital film projection titled Narrenschiff (German for ‘Ship of Fools’), which offers a portrait of a group of black men at sea, struggling to reach the land. It features an original score by composer Maxim Budnick and is narrated by acclaimed actress CCH Pounder. 

This will be joined in the gallery by a historic copy of the eponymous 1498 book, written by German theologian Sebastian Brant, and an oil painting by Wiley depicting a group of four migrants in a rickety boat with a tree trunk growing where the mast should be. 

“We are thrilled to have Kehinde Wiley’s art in The Levinsky Gallery, thanks to our collaboration with The Box and Royal Museums Greenwich,” 

said Dr Chapman. 

“His work is incredibly relevant to today, resonating with issues concerning social injustice, power structures and the current migrant crisis, while also asking questions about Plymouth’s own history, including the impact of voyages such as the Mayflower.”

You are invited to Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools

29 September–24 January at The Levinsky Gallery, University of Plymouth.

Kehinde Wiley is a world-renowned Nigerian-American artist whose naturalistic portraits challenge the conventional view of power, taste and privilege by portraying black people of disparate origins and social status as celebrated figures. His style is deliberately decorative and sitters include President Obama, Kanye West and fellow artists Wangechi Mutu and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Curated by The Box in partnership with The Arts Institute and Royal Museums Greenwich.

Free to access, find out more and book your place

Also featuring in the public arts programme, include:

  • The launch of a series of Music Forums as part of Musica Viva, offering live-streamed musical evenings via YouTube Live. Each monthly forum, commencing on 9 October, 2020, will feature performances and informal conversations between Dr Robert Taub, Director of Music, and his guests including cellist Lionel Hardy, composer Mark Forkgen and harpist Elizabeth Bass.
  • The online exhibition, Everywhere: Life in a littered world (22 November, 2020 – 31 January, 2021), which presents works by international artists considering the everyday practices of littering and a range of associated issues and implications. It will be launched alongside the international conference MICRO2020, which explores the fate and impacts of microplastics in the environment, and includes a programme of online talks, events and resources. Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, described as the “godfather of microplastics”, will be among those participating.
  • 5x5x5 (10 October – 24 October, 2020), an online festival bringing together five artists, five writers and five researchers over 15 days to respond to the ‘provocation’ “Everything is changing. Nothing has changed. Change is coming.” Part of the Legacies and Futures season, 5x5x5 will publish one piece of work each day across a range of art forms and disciplines, including health, law, history, visual arts, literature, music, film, theatre, poetry and spoken word. 
  • A live-streamed Presidential Election Night Question Time, in which the audience can submit questions to the expert panel, including historians Dr Harry Bennett, Dr Alicja Syska and Dr Simon Topping, and politics expert Dr David Brockington.
People booking tickets to an event from The Arts Institute’s digital programme will receive a link to enjoy free access to the online events from home.

Find out more about The Arts Institute’s new programme.