Pt III: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley

Within this discussion on the decolonization of art history, we cannot help but to try and imagine what it might look like in a physical manifestation.[28]  The fight for a more visual form of retribution in representation has fuelled contemporary artists to seize the power to firmly place themselves within the art historical canon.[29]  From the shoulders of those who came before him, American born Nigerian artist Kehinde Wiley reimagines the porcelain nobility so heavily set in the foundations of western art history. These conventions of ideal whiteness were bolstered in Winckelmann’s famous musings of “a noble simplicity and quiet grandeur, both in posture and expression.”[30]  This “favourable” simplicity and quietness somehow becomes tied to the whiteness, not only of marble but one’s skin. Wiley reformulates this favour into the vibrant “image of the black.”[31]

With prominent global projects such as The World Stage, the artist’s endeavours become, equally personal and universally relevant. Summarised in his A New Republic exhibition and accompanying publication, edited by Eugenie Tsai, we see a body of work focused on restaging the histories of empire and globalisation.[32]  From Wiley’s earlier practices to more recent exhibitions like In Search of the Miraculous (2017) there is a notably clear correlation in terms of subject matter, but a fluid evolution in the conjuring of meaning using water. Wiley’s contemporaries; Yinka Shonibare RA, Kara Walker and Isaac Julien amongst others, create a commentary, solidified in paint, stained-glass, bronze, fabric and film, on the world we were given and what humanity has made of it.

When discussing Wiley, the term “performance” often comes to mind.[33]  That is Harry Berger’s theories on the nature of portraiture as a performative act on the part of the sitter and the representational responsibilities of the artist.[34]  Notorious B.I.G on horseback in Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, as well as the choice to select his models from the streets around the world, allows us to further consider the relationship between artist, sitter and audience (fig. 7). Fascinatingly, the artist’s inspiration, or the catalyst that started this particular methodology, came from a mugshot he found on the streets of New York.[35]  He observed the radical change in the way he viewed portraiture:

“I began thinking of this mugshot itself as portraiture in a very perverse sense, a type of marking, or recording of one’s place in the world in time.” [36]

Pt III: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 7. Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2015. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. Collection of Suzi and Andrew B. Cohen. 

Potentially, such a coincidental occurrence added to his desire to question how we, as the audience, as individuals, think about portraiture.

Historically, we would often begin considering the aim of a patron or sitter when commissioning a piece; what are they trying to communicate about themselves through the painting, without words? This is not implying that the role of the artist was previously subservient, but, arguably, before we realise, we are looking at the manifestation of artistic practice and perspective, we see who or what they are representing. We notice the sitter and the object itself as a painting before we see the artist responsible for its creation. Tumelo Mosaka convincingly interprets Wiley’s choices by describing the “tension” created with “canonical art history,” bringing to light that his work “symbolically reassigns value to the sitter.”[37]  In giving value to the sitter, the artist gives value to their blackness. There is so much to be gained from Wiley’s work, but the provision to see a sitter of dark skin, immortalised in spaces that often omit the ghosts of slavery and colonialism is particularly poignant.

In 2017, the Queen’s House gallery, Greenwich introduced the work of the internationally acclaimed artist into their collection, making it the first to be brought into a public collection in the United Kingdom. Though the Queen’s House is a seventeenth-century establishment, there are many similarities between this space and aforementioned others like the National Gallery. The exhibition space has an established narrative embedded in its history, reminiscent of the previously discussed image of polished porcelain politeness.[38]  With the connotations of empire that precede establishments associated with the monarchy, this specific work, chosen to become a part of this collection is a step towards changing how we view colonized art history and how we present a decolonized story.

Wiley’s A Ship of Fools was created as part of a wider exhibition In Search of the Miraculous at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London (fig. 8). The exhibition title suggests a certain navigation through the fluid representations of humanity and religion in a study of bodies in water. The exhibition featured a range of paintings and a film recognised by the British Film Institute featuring a strong maritime theme. Wiley’s choice to submerge himself into maritime imagery and conceptualism potentially gives us, as the audience with an understanding of his previous work, the room to make connections between these artworks and Transatlantic trade.

Pt III: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 8. Kehinde Wiley, The Ship of Fools, 2017. Oil on canvas, 107 x 88 in. The Queen’s House Gallery, Greenwich.

Mounted on a royal blue wall in the king’s presence-chamber, pierced with windows overlooking the Thames, Wiley’s The Ship of Fools sails in perfect alignment with representations of seventeenth-century royalty. It is based on a narrative translated from Sebastien Brant’s “Das Narrenschiff.”[39]  The German poem depicts “Das Narrenschiff” literally meaning “The Ship of Fools;” an allegory stemmed from Plato’s analogies on the importance of democracy.[40]  Wiley’s command of paint and composition work well to fulfil Brant’s literary narrative but they also show clear similarities with Hieronymus Bosch’s arguably more chaotic fifteenth-century wood painting of the same name (fig. 9). We are initially met by four black “sailors” in a rather ominously lit scene surrounded by unquieted waters. Compositionally, the painting is relatively bottom-heavy, but the stormy atmosphere and slight texturing of the clouds through the modulation of colour adds weight, creating a more balanced overall effect. The waves; dynamic and restless as they are, do not appear to shake the relatively static figures occupying the small wooden boat. There is no land in sight, but a somewhat baleful and dishevelled looking tree sits in the boat, occupying the central axis of the painting. On the far right we can just make out a section of another boat, perhaps a larger vessel, aerially warped in hazy hues to further covey its distance from us.

Pt III: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 9. Hieronymus Bosch, The Ship of Fools c.1490-1500. Oil on wood, 22.8 x 13in. The Musée du Louvre, Paris. 

Just by looking, we begin to ask ourselves more questions about the message Wiley is trying to express. Returning to the concept of “decolonized art history” and how one might attempt to create such an image, we become compelled to make links between these characters and Transatlantic trade. The unshakable image of Africans being transported on slave vessels creates the same unsettling feeling reinvented by the swirling skies and sea. Compelling as this may be, the title begs a different question, why name it The Ship of Fools? Why “Das Narrenschiff?” The characters on the boat are not regaled in the same way as Wiley’s more famous subjects; there is also no outward display of an oppressive force. As compelling as it may be to press on a supposedly obvious reading of this piece based on the argument at hand, perhaps we might leave some space here for other interpretations of its maritime theme. What of the omnipotence of water? The mixture of expressions displayed by each of the characters though none of them are physically looking at us. This performance does not use the gaze to include the audience, it uses the atmosphere to create a certain “tension.”[41]   It is the way we feel when looking at it that drags us onboard.

Why call the exhibition In Search of the Miraculous? what are we looking for? What purpose does this voyage serve? There were numerous works exhibited alongside The Ship of Fools, the majority were paintings, but amongst them was a three-channel digital film, simply titled Narrenschiff (fig. 10). Almost all-encompassing in its delivery, we experience a narrated three-channel film depicting what can only be described as Wiley’s personal search for “the miraculous” becoming more apparent. CCH Pounder’s female “voice of God” navigates us through a voyage of post-colonial idealism.[42]  Through the incorporation of quotes from authors such as Frantz Fanon amongst others, the direction of the installation becomes clearer.[43]  Perhaps the Ship of Fools is a commentary on our society as a sort of reflection of the canon itself. If a ship of “fools” as observed in the original context becomes transformed into a “pilgrimage of madmen in search for their purpose,” then these characters become intellectual heroes from a cultural perspective.[44]  The artist explained in an interview at the British Film Institute, that we should not be too rigid in our understanding of the exhibition.[45]  Narrenschiff invokes the audience to think. Why do we not question or confront the canonical narrative of western art history? Let us be considered mad or even foolish for seeking an expansion in the story which renders many histories invisible.

Pt III: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.

Figure 10. Kehinde Wiley, Narrenschiff (still from film), 2017. Three-channel film narrated by CCH Pounder, Duration 16:40 minutes. The Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. 


These ideas potentially become “oppositional” in nature due to the attitude they cultivate for looking directly at the oppressive force and demanding more space within art history.[46]  It seems Wiley pays attention to the gaze of the characters portrayed in his performance, rekindling his attention to portraiture (fig. 11). There are long moments within the film where we, the audience are caught in the antagonising or “oppositional gaze” where the power we have is almost seized through direct eye contact.[47]  It is as if we are being challenged to see the humanity in these concepts.

Pt III: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.

Figure 11. Kehinde Wiley, Narrenschiff (still from film), 2017. Three-channel film narrated by CCH Pounder, Duration 16:40 minutes. The Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. 


Wiley communicates very similar messages to many minority directors and artists alike, showing a sort of visual and conceptual consensus. Isaac Julien’s Black Skin, White Masks, a docudrama on the life and work of Frantz Fanon follows a hugely similar narrative on post-colonial thought.[48]  Royal academician, Yinka Shonibare CBE, has famously reimagined western clothing styles and objects in vibrant African prints. Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle features the same maritime imagery present in Wiley’s exhibition, which could also be joined with Kara Walker in her Resurrection Story with Patrons (fig. 12 and 13). Each artwork has its own individual message, but collectively we cannot ignore this uprooting of the long-buried truths of Transatlantic trade.

Pt III: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 12. Yinka Shonibare, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010. Mixed media, including acrylic (PMMA), cast resin, wood, brass and printed canvas, 110 x 98.5 x 197 in. The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. 


Pt III: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 13. Kara Walker. Resurrection Story with Patrons, 2017. Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite and dry-point, Printed on Hahnemuhle Copperplate Bright White 400gsm paper, 39.75 in x 30 in; 39.75 x 49 in; 39.75 x 30 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


It takes the courage to reveal other narratives for people of colour to see themselves represented in art. It takes equal respect and accessibility in order to connect another strand of creatorship to the canon we know. As we have established in the previous chapter, we should not seek to create a new historical canon, because that is not the nature of this discipline. Artists are teaching us to place more leadership and respect in the hands of more people of colour to express new ways to study hidden concepts. We must search for our own “miraculous.” That being equality in representation in the art world. A miracle suggests something unattainable without divine intervention. But, to reiterate the writings of Fanon:

“When colonization remains unchallenged by armed resistance; when the sum of harmful stimulants reaches a certain threshold, the colonized defences collapse.” [49]

If we do not actively seek the “likeness” of people of colour, as we will explore in the next chapter, we will find ourselves, passengers, not on a ship of fools, but a voyage of the ignorant. 


[28] Catherine Grant and Dorothy Price, “Decolonizing Art History,” Art History 43, no.1 (2020): 8-66.

[29] Eugenie Tsai, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2015), 34.

[30] Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (Oxford: Oxford Press, 1755), 35. See also, Mark Bradley, The Importance of Colour on Ancient Marble Sculpture (Association of Art Historians: London, 2005).

[31] David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, and Karen CC Dalton, The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 3 (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[32] Tsai, Kehinde Wiley, 34. See also, Dereck C. Murray, “Kehinde Wiley: Splendid Bodies.” Nka 21 Journal of Contemporary African Art, no. 1 (2007).

[33] Harry Berger, “Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture” Representations, no. 46 (1994): 94.

[34] ibid.

[35] Tsai, Kehinde Wiley, 17.

[36] ibid.,18.

[37] Tsai, Kehinde Wiley, 79.

[38] Lawrence E. Klein, “Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal 46, no. 4 (2002): p. 871.

[39] Siegrid Schmidt, “Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools and its Woodcuts.” in Behaving like Fools: Voice, Gesture, and Laughter in Texts, Manuscripts, and Early Books, ed. L. Perry and A.G. Schwartz (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010): 81-108.

[40] Tom Griffith, Plato: ‘The Republic’, ed. G.R.F Ferrari (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 191-192.

[41] Tsai, Kehinde Wiley, 79.

[42] British Film Institute, “In conversation with… portrait artist Kehinde Wiley | BFI,” London, published December 7, 2017, YouTube video, 45:34,

[43] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963).

[44] Narrenschiff, directed by Kehinde Wiley, narrated by CCH Pounder (London: The Stephen Friedman Gallery, 2017)

[45] British Film Institute, “In conversation with,” 2017.

[46] Tsai, Kehinde Wiley, 79

[47] Bell Hooks, Black looks: race and representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 115-131. See also, Bell Hooks, Yearning: race, gender and cultural politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990), 23-33.

[48] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008).

[49] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 182.

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