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Kehinde Wiley at the National Gallery: The Prelude at the National Gallery, London

28 January 2022

Jonathan Evens views Kehinde Wiley’s show about being included

© Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Galerie Templon, Paris

Kehinde Wiley, Prelude (Babacar Mané), 2021, oil on linen

Kehinde Wiley, Prelude (Babacar Mané), 2021, oil on linen

KEHINDE WILEY is in search of the miraculous, while also seeking after justice. His practice has been to rework key images from the canon of Western art by replacing the central white figures with contemporary images of black figures in equivalent poses.

This highlights the extent to which Western art assumes white supremacy as a norm while it also normalises black pride by valorising the right of previously excluded people to inhabit what was originally white space. Wiley’s practice necessarily includes the Church, as many of the images that he recreates, being taken from the canon of Western art, are images originally commissioned by the Church or ones inspired by the Judaeo-Christian scriptures.

This exhibition builds on a newer strand in Wiley’s practice, which appropriates and reimagines images from the marine and Romantic landscape strands of Western art. We are looking here primarily at the work of Winslow Homer and Casper David Friedrich, while also glancing back further in time to Hieronymus Bosch. First appearing in 2017 in an exhibition, “In Search of the Miraculous”, at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, these are images that work with the heights, depths, and expanses of mountains, oceans, and sky to explore what it means for the global-majority black community to search for the sublime.

The exhibition’s curator, Christine Riding, first met Wiley during the Stephen Friedman show and subsequently bought the first version of his Ship of Fools for the Royal Museums in Greenwich. Like the first version, Wiley’s second Ship of Fools responds to Bosch’s panel of the same name in the collection of the Louvre.

© Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and Galerie Templon, ParisStill from Kehinde Wiley’s film Prelude, 2021        

Wiley’s image depicts a group of six migrants with a rickety boat that has a tree trunk growing where the mast would ordinarily be. Two are in the water; all are crying out for help. Wiley’s migrants struggling to reach the land while calling for help become a metaphor for both historical and contemporary issues of migration, isolation, and social dislocation. In this way, Wiley reverses Bosch’s satirical critique of his sailors.

Bosch’s panel was itself a visual interpretation of a satirical allegory by the humanist and theologian Sebastian Brant, Ship of Fools, or Das Narrenschiff in German. Narrenschiff (2017), also a contemporary response to the Ship of Fools allegory, was Wiley’s first film installation. His second is now here.

For Prelude, Wiley took black Londoners, whom he met and cast for the film on the streets around the National Gallery, on a trip to Norway to explore its fjords and glacial landscapes. In the film, we see them standing, walking, and playing in the snow, first singly, then in pairs, then in groups, and finally together round a fire. Mountains have often been depicted as places for encounter with God, and the film, as also the paintings based on Friedrich’s images, frequently reference the Romantic wanderer figure in search of spirituality or self-discovery.


© Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and Galerie Templon, ParisStill from Kehinde Wiley’s film Prelude, 2021      

The title of the film refers to William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude, and his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” is quoted, together with Thoreau’s Walden and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Emerson’s line that “We are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God” sums up much of a film whose character are, by turns, overwhelmed by snow, and subsumed by whiteness, so that they almost disappear in the landscape.

In this way, Wiley achieves a dual focus, reflecting the overwhelming reach of white supremacy, while also acknowledging humanity’s fragile relationship with nature, currently and most significantly regarding climate change. Wiley’s characters persist through the snow to the respite of the fire, most notably in scenes that zero in on their smiles, held at length in the face of the bitter chill.

Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, which is quoted and appropriated here by Wiley, is frequently interpreted as an image of self-reflection, in which the mountain climber depicted is contemplating his path through life. Friedrich stated that his aim was not simply “the faithful representation of air, water, rocks, and trees . . . but the reflection of [the artist’s] soul and emotion in these objects”. For him, landscape paintings were expressions of religious feeling and personal symbolism. As he said, “The artist should paint not only what he has in front of him but also what he sees inside himself.”

© Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and Galerie Templon, ParisStill from Kehinde Wiley’s film Prelude, 2021    

This is what Wiley also does, having simply noted that “Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.” In these works, he uses the artistic conventions and canons of the Western landscape tradition — mountainous, coastal, sublime, Romantic, and transcendental — to raise questions about power, privilege, and identity, and highlight the absence or marginalisation of black figures in European art.

As the Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, says, with these images and films, Wiley has defined “a new kind of sublime, one that is strong and distinctive, that reflects on artistic and poetic tradition, but confronts urgent contemporary questions of identity, migration and marginality”.

“Kehinde Wiley at the National Gallery: The Prelude” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 18 April. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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