Kehinde Wiley: The Prelude

Kehinde Wiley: The Prelude at National Gallery, London - Omenka Online
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Running from 10 December 2021 to 18 April 2022 at the Sunley Room, National Gallery, London, is Prelude by Kehinde Wiley.

The exhibition will comprise a six-channel film shot in Haiti and Norway, and five paintings inspired by the epic scenes of Romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and Winslow Homer. Building on his show at Stephen Friedman Gallery, Wiley is exploring notions of the sublime and the transcendental, with a particular focus on mountains and oceans. In one section of the film, Black men and women appear in stark glacial settings, overwhelmed by whiteness so dominant it is part of the landscape; in others, they are at 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 male, with his back to the viewer, gazing out over the land in search of spiritual connection.

Wiley’s works will be displayed slap-bang 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 those, Riding sees this new series as a development. “The people who feature have a presence and are identified,” she says. “They’re part of the process and intimately connected with the works”—works that reinterpret artistic and poetic traditions and in doing so comment incisively on some of today’s most pressing issues.

Kehinde Wiley is an American artist best known for his portraits that feature people of colour in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings. Most famously, in 2017 he was commissioned to paint Barack Obama, becoming the first Black artist to paint an official portrait of a President of the United States. His work references European portraiture by positioning contemporary Black sitters, from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds, often wearing casual or hip-hop clothing, in the poses of the original historical, religious or mythological figures, conferring – in the process – his sitters with similar fame and status.

His images – as part quotation, part intervention – raise questions about power, privilege, identity, and above all highlight the absence or marginalisation of Black figures within European art.

Wiley’s first film installation, ‘Narrenschiff’ (2017), was a contemporary response to the Ship of Fools allegory, popular in European culture from the late 15th century. Wiley’s work featured a group of young Black men at sea, struggling to reach the land – a metaphor for both historical and contemporary issues of migration, isolation and social dislocation. Building on these themes at the National Gallery, with five paintings and one six-channel digital film, Wiley will explore European Romanticism and its focus on epic scenes of oceans and mountains, humankind’s relationship with nature and in the process touches upon current concerns such as climate change and migration.

Read Ask the Curator: Jeanne Mercier


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