The Box celebrates Black History Month with Kehinde Wiley exhibition and free online talk

The Box museum is celebrating Black History Month this October by highlighting the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools in the Levinsky Gallery. The world-renowned Nigerian-American artist, who is famous for painting the official portrait of Barack Obama, has grown to become a symbol for black communities and their empowerment.

Featuring paintings, sculptures, and a mesmerising three-channel video installation, Ship of Fools reflects on how over the centuries, systems of prejudice have prevented opportunity, marginalised the achievements and hindered recognition of the important contribution made by individuals, as well as whole sections of society, because of their race.

To mark Black History Month, The Box will be holding a free online discussion in partnership with The Arts Institute onWednesday 28th October at 1pm. The in-depth conversation will focus on Kehinde Wiley’s fascinating career, taking the diverse artworks exhibited in Ship of Fools as a starting point to examine the ways in which the artist challenges the conventional depictions and aesthetics of power, taste and privilege.


Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools)  |  Ship of Fools  |  Alexander Cassat

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 13th-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. For its first museum presentation, 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.