Kehinde Wiley is a New Yorkbased artist who made international headlines in 2017 when he was commissioned to paint the official portrait of Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington.

The portrait of Obama was unveiled in February this year. Wiley, who is of Nigerian and African-American descent, grew up in Los Angeles and studied at San Francisco Art Institute and Yale School of Art. He is best known for his large-scale portraits of African-Americans cast in heroic poses in the grand manner. Through these pictures he has created an alternative canon that challenges the absence of people of colour from traditional histories of art. Ship of Fools marks a shift in Wiley’s attention to seascapes and in particular to the collection of works he made for an exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London in 2017. Each of the seascapes is based on a work in a public collection, reinterpreting, for example, Winslow Homer and JMW Turner, with the white figures in the original paintings replaced by black figures. For Wiley, these figures represent migrants who have set sail in search of better lives. Ship of Fools is the centrepiece of this collection of works. The starting point for the picture is Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools (1490-1500), now in the Louvre. But while Bosch’s painting is critical of its subjects, Wiley’s raises questions about the risk migrants take to improve their chances of happiness. Royal Museums Greenwich has an important collection of marine paintings and offers a rich context for Ship of Fools. The picture is a post-colonial comment on the genre, questioning many of the assumptions about the glory of imperial might as portrayed in historic holdings. It is the first marine painting by a known black artist to enter the collection and the first work by Wiley to enter a public collection in the UK.


Painting was made in the artist's studio, then transferred in 2017 to the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, for the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: In Search of the Miraculous.

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