Exhibition: Kehinde Wiley – Ship of Fools

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. 

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    The Levinsky Gallery, Roland Levinsky Building, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth, PL4 8AA

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

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.

In 2017, Wiley made his first ever film installation. Narrenschiff (German for Ship of Fools) is a three-channel digital projection with direct reference to the 15th-century book of the same title by the German theologian, Sebastian Brant. The book satirised politicians, clerics and other well-known or influential people and was a huge success of the time, narrating the story of a crew of fools lost at sea.

The Ship of Fools is not, however, an imaginary story. In thirteenth century Western Europe, large numbers of people, who were labelled as outsiders, were made to set sail and forced into isolation and sometimes, as consequence, sanatoriums. Kehinde Wiley reflects upon the idea of marginalising those who do not conform to societal norms through this work.

Wiley’s film provides a portrait of a group of young black men at sea, struggling to reach the land – a metaphor for both historical and contemporary histories of migration and social dislocation.

Narrenschiff joined The Box’s collections in 2018 thanks to the Contemporary Art Society’s Collections Fund at Frieze. The film is accompanied by the original 1498 book The Ship of Fools by Brant which is part of The Box’s Cottonian Collection.

The painting Ship of Fools is on loan from Royal Museums Greenwich. The large canvas was part of the same exhibition which featured the first presentation of Narrenschiff along with a series of painted shipwrecks by Wiley, all from 2017.

Alexander Cassatt, 2017 depicts the seventh president of the Pennsylvania Railroad (1899–1906). Wiley portrays this character by replacing the original figure (known by an existing statue) with a black man the artist met on the streets of Brooklyn and later invited to pose for him in the studio. Wiley uses this type of street casting for many of his models.

With the inclusion of a bronze bust made by the artist in 2015, depicting American rapper Kanye West, the exhibition reflects the variety of media that Wiley deploys, despite mainly being known for his paintings.

Wiley’s gaze into the world functions as a filter for narrating an alternative history about the representation of power, race and class.

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