Kehinde Wiley at the National Gallery in London

Christine Riding, curator at the National Gallery in London, first met Kehinde Wiley in 2017. At the time, he was presenting an exhibition of marines, In search of the miraculous, at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, and she worked at the Royal Museums Greenwich, for whom she acquired her allegorical painting Ship of fools (2017). The couple ended up chatting over a pint at the Trafalgar Tavern about the ideas running through their heads, and it became clear that they were not done with the art of the sea. Four years later, they collaborated on the first exhibition of the American artist with a major British museum. Kehinde Wiley: The Prelude will unveil the pictorial conventions of Western landscapes and seascapes, humanity’s relationship with nature and issues such as the migrant crisis and climate change.

The day before his move to the National Gallery, Riding made an appointment with Wiley for a walk through the museum’s permanent collection. “What really shone is that he admires and seeks to challenge these artists,” she says. “He admires their traditions and the power of their compositions, their know-how and their imagination. But also, he criticizes cultures and societies, and the prejudices that are locked in them.

Production photo of the on-site shoot in Haiti for Narrenschiff (2017)

The exhibition will include a six-channel film shot in Haiti and Norway, and five paintings inspired by epic scenes by romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and Winslow Homer. Drawing on her exhibition at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, Wiley explores notions of the sublime and the transcendent, with a particular focus on mountains and oceans. In part of the film, black men and women appear in austere glacial settings, submerged by a whiteness so dominant that it is part of the landscape; in others, they are one with nature. The exhibition takes its name from William Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem and riffs on the romantic trope of the wanderer – traditionally a white man, with his back to the viewer, gazing at the earth in search of spiritual connection.

Wiley’s works will be on display right in the middle of the National Gallery, surrounded by historical portraits, landscapes and seascapes. The artist is best known for his own portraits – pastiches of Old Masters – and rather than a departure from them, Riding sees this new series as a development. “The people who are listed have a presence and are identified,” she says. “They are part of the process and are intimately linked to the works,” works that reinterpret artistic and poetic traditions and, in so doing, provide incisive commentary on some of today’s most pressing issues.

• Kehinde Wiley: The Prelude, National Gallery, London, December 10-April 18, 2022

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