New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley has become one of our most acclaimed living painters and is known for his naturalistic portraits including, most famously, that of former US President, Barack Obama. With his deliberately decorative style, the Nigerian-American artist challenges conventional views of power, taste and privilege by portraying people of colour of disparate origins and social status as celebrated figures.
In 2017, Wiley made his first ever video installation. The ‘Ship of Fools’ exhibition centred on this three-channel digital film projection. Titled Narrenschiff (German for ‘Ship of Fools’), the film came into The Box's permanent collections in 2018 thanks to the Contemporary Art Society's Collections Fund at Frieze. It’s a portrait of a group of black men at sea, struggling to reach the land - a metaphor for both historical and contemporary histories of migration.
The title of the film is a direct reference to a 15th century book of the same title by the German theologian Sebastian Brant. This book satirized 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.
We were delighted to be able to display a copy of Brant’s book. Published in 1498, it’s part of our historically important Cottonian Collection.
The ‘Ship of Fools’ exhibition also featured three additional key works to give audiences a flavour of the range of Kehinde Wiley’s output. These included a large oil painting also titled 'Ship of Fools' from the collections of Royal Museums Greenwich. The painting depicts a group of four migrants in a rickety boat with a tree trunk growing where the mast should be.
A Closer Look
Podcasts, texts and resources
Use these links to explore a range of extra resources connected to the 'Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools' exhibition.
Podcast: What is a ship of fools?
Senior Curator, Emma Philip in conversation with Kimberley Cumberbatch, Assistant Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich.
Podcast: Portraying power
Contemporary Art Curator, Nicoletta Lambertucci in conversation with artist and curator Dominique White.
Commissioned text: Kanye, 2015 by Kehinde Wiley
An essay by Ashleigh Barice, Curator, Academic, Founder & Director of curatorial platform b.Dewitt.
Commissioned text: Narrenschiff, 2017 by Kehinde Wiley
A poetic text/meditation by award-winning poet and writer, Vanessa Onwuemezi.
Learning resource: Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools
For KS3/4/5, further and higher education.
The 'Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools' exhibition was curated by The Box in partnership with The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth and Royal Museums Greenwich. It was displayed in The Levinsky Gallery at the University of Plymouth from 29 September to 20 December 2020.