‘In Search of the Miraculous’ is the second exhibition by Kehinde Wiley to be shown at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London (24 November 2017 – 27 January 2018).
Displayed in three rooms, this series of nine new paintings and a three-channel artist’s film illustrate moments in the lives of young Haitian fishermen presented against a backdrop of tropical coastal settings and tempestuous seascapes.
The press release for the exhibition states that Wiley’s motivation for creating these works was to address a number of themes relating to “migration, madness and isolation in contemporary America.” However, although these foci were symbolically evident throughout the exhibition, the overarching significations foregrounded by Wiley in this body of work were more broadly related to black masculinities, issues of ontology and sense of self for men throughout the African diaspora – not a project centred solely on symbolising the impacts of populist politics for African-Americans in the USA today.
Several of the maritime paintings depicting young men striving to control small boats as they are blown about by the sheer force of the wind and the waves contain pictorial and titular references to famous works from the Western fine art canon by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, J. M. W. Turner and Winslow Homer. For example, Wiley’s painting ‘The Herring Net (Zakary Antoine and Samedy Pierre Louisson)’ (2017) references Winslow Homer’s work in its main title and also addresses a similar theme to that depicted in his 19th century boat scene concerning the relationship between human beings and the natural environment.
Similarly, three of Wiley’s single-figure and paired portraits of young black fishermen, framed by ominously dark skies and choppy seas, bear the title ‘Fishermen Upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather’ in direct reference to J.M.W. Turner’s 1802 work. However, these contemporary paintings have the addition of the Haitian sitters’ names – specifically, Zakary Antoine, Nelson Noel and Andielo Pierre – to distinguish them from Turner’s early 19th century seascape, and to emphasise the centrality of figuration above and beyond the dramatic coastal scenes animating the background.
Kehinde Wiley’s group composition of the ‘Ship of Fools’ (2017) follows a long tradition of contemporary visual artists referencing Hieronymus Bosch’s famous Renaissance oil painting of the same title, which dates back to the early 16th century. However the standing figures in Wiley’s painting are both presented with a much more serene countenance as if reflecting on the chaos that surrounds them as opposed to being an integral part of it.
Aside from the thought-provoking symbolic references to classical works embedded in Wiley’s contemporary paintings, the most engaging aspect of this series is the quality and sensitivity of the figurations – particularly the way Wiley’s sitters are painted with almost luminescent brown skin tones that beautifully reflect the natural moonlight, and form a perfect contrast set against the frothy whiteness of the waves. When an artist is able to create such sublime representations of brown skin within his fine art portraiture, it is unsurprising that he was recently also awarded one of the most prestigious commissions in the USA to paint the official portrait of former President Barack Obama, which on completion will be displayed as part of the Smithsonian National Gallery’s permanent collection in Washington D.C.
The final part of the exhibition was the three-channel digital film ‘Narrenschiff’ [Ship of Fools] (2017), featuring footage of the same individuals represented in Wiley’s paintings swimming together in the tropical waters off the Haitian coast. Once again, the title and the geographical setting for this artwork allude to important historical, cultural, psychological and ontological issues concerning the impacts and legacies of enslavement, colonialism, racism and ‘othering’ on individual and collective constructions of identity and self-perception as African-descended black people living in the contemporary, post-colonial present.
Observing the serene cinematic footage of the young Haitian fishermen swimming near the shoreline, and looking out contemplatively towards the waves, combined with Maxim Budnick’s original score, and a voiceover by actress C.C.H. Pounder of powerful extracts from Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ and Michel Foucault’s ‘Madness and Civilization’ – created a poignant conclusion to the exhibition that reiterated more explicitly Wiley’s themes about the internal and external struggles of humankind, and the capacity to be physically and psychologically resilient in the face of challenging environmental, socio-political and economic forces.
I was deeply moved by this exhibition, and concur with the concluding remarks mentioned in the gallery’s press statement about Wiley’s outstanding body of work:
“‘In Search of the Miraculous’ captures the full spectrum of the human condition and delivers in epic proportions the artist’s grand narrative.”
FURTHER INFORMATION AND WEB LINKS:
Fanon, Frantz (2007)  ‘The Wretched of the Earth.’ Translated by Richard Philcox, with contributions by Homi K. Bhabha and Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Grove Press. Originally published as Les Damnés de la Terre.
Foucault, Michel (2001)  ‘Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.’ Translated by Richard Howard. London and New York: Psychology Press. Originally published as Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique.
Nayeri, Farah (2017) ‘Kehinde Wiley on Painting the Powerless. And a President’, New York Times, 27 November 2017.
Kehinde Wiley Studio (Artist’s Website): http://kehindewiley.com/
Kehinde Wiley’s biography: http://www.stephenfriedman.com/artists/kehinde-wiley/
Stephen Friedman Gallery: http://www.stephenfriedman.com/exhibitions/