Kehinde Wiley takes up space at the National Gallery. Why there is more to see beyond the monumental revisited Old Masters
by Sarah Colson
The National Gallery hosts Kehinde Wiley’s Prelude. The American artist explores the artistic conventions and canons of the Western landscape tradition – mountainous, coastal, sublime, Romantic and transcendental – through the medium
s of film and painting. But there is much more to see beyond the monumental revisited Old Masters.
Western artistic canons revisited
Walking into the Sunley Room, at the centre of the collection, one gets quickly dominated by monumental paintings, echoing the landscapes and seascapes by Claude, Friedrich, Turner and Vernet, sometimes displayed only a few steps from this room.
On the left, Prelude (Babacar Mané), a gigantic oil on linen, depicts a young Black man from Dakar in a beige long coat, who eventually made his way to the top of a mountain, facing the precipice and surrounded by fog in a romantic light. Mimicking the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818), from the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, the almost four meter high painting (four times bigger than the Friedrich one) brings a new perspective on the ownership of art, on the Western gaze and Romantic values established by White artists over the last centuries.
I want to see people who look like me 
On the opposite wall , a painting of two young Black men – Ibrahima Ndiaye and El Hadji Malick Gueye, street cast as most of the times in Wiley’s works – are flooded with light at the centre of a landscape directly transposed from another Friedrich’s – Chalk Cliffs on Rügen.
Playing pat-a-cake in their casual outfit (Nike shoes, tee shirt and hoodie), one of them is looking at the visitor in the eyes, dragging him into this disturbing experience of deconstruction. The culture and the values on which is built the Western civilization are suddenly shaken and questioned. Where have been Black figures within European art?
Walking back towards the entrance, on the right, Ship of Fools II presents four Black figures in a drifting boat, screaming for help and raising hands at the sky, as well as two additional characters supposedly drowning but quite obviously standing up on the studio floor – Wiley is a master of Photorealism, even if the technique has its limits here. His work refers to the eponymous painting by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1490–1500) and The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1818-1819), who marked the beginning of the Romantic movement in Europe. It is also sadly reminiscent of the migrants’ tragedy, unseen and forever lost at sea. On this ship, are the passengers stuck in a 19th century context? Are they stuck in a never-ending story, invisible, their place in society forever denied?
The exhibition ends with Prelude, probably the most interesting piece of the exhibition: a 30 minutes six-channel digital film in which London-cast Black people were sent in the Norway mountains to be filmed. Standing in the hostile whiteness of the cold, Wiley’s heroes seem at first sight happy, smiling and playing pat-a-cake, catching snowflakes. However, as the camera zooms on their faces, joy fades away and fake smiles, signs of tensions and even tears come visible. There is something mystical in the mise-en-scène of the characters overwhelmed by the harsh conditions, almost crushed by the mountains. That could turn into an epiphany for the visitor as the dramatic situation of these women and men, lost to these landscapes, reveals itself.
Who is the visitor of Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition? Probably not the typical National Gallery’s explorer, more inclined to appreciate Old Masters’ paintings of the Western European tradition. Bringing Wiley into the Gallery, even if the Sunley Room does not give justice to his works (one cannot step back and forced to bend one’s neck to appreciate the full content of the paintings), is not anecdotic and says a lot about the institutions’ willingness to adapt to the current context.
I’m not impressed yet 
The Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the implacable need to give visibility and access to the Black artists and more generally to open a discussion with the Black community.
To remedy the historical invisibility of Black women and men
For Wiley, this is not new. He did not wait for the BLM movement to shout what needed to be heard. In an interview to The New York Times during Summer 2020, when asked his views on the protests following George Floyd’s death, it is no surprise Wiley said “ it’s a wake-up call to the white population in America. It’s what so many Black Americans have known and been trying to communicate for centuries. It comes as no shock or surprise to us that Black bodies are under assault on a daily basis.”
Wiley’s art is seen as – sadly – revolutionary as he is one of the rare Black artists to have gain enough visibility to take on public space to expose endemic racism.
With Rumors of War (2019), a 8.2 m tall and 4.9 m long sculpture first unveiled in Times Square, New York City, the artist examined the symbolism of European equestrian portraiture: dominance, glorification of the – white, male – victorious warrior, grandeur of the West. In Wiley’s sculpture, the knight is a Black man with dreadlocks, Nike shoes and a hoodie. With this simple twist, Wiley opens a conversation about colonialism, oppression, visibility and human rights, in a particular moment where calls are made to remove these monuments, “terrifying monuments”. In his view, “instead of having one monument that goes up on the spot where Confederate statues were, we should have artists of all styles come in for a period of time where their work is on the pedestal. (…) It’s our way of creating a stage, and whomever we decide to shine the spotlight on in that moment is incredibly important. That’s where we as a society are announcing what we believe in. It’s incredibly moral.”
Kehinde Wiley has been on a mission for years, the one to use “the power of images to remedy the historical invisibility of Black men and women,” as Eugenie Tsai, the curator of Wiley’s first museum retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum back in 2015, observed.
Wiley’s academic background is impressive
At 11, encouraged by his mother, an African American woman who raised her six kids alone – the father returned to Nigeria after finishing his studies – he joined the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, a public, tuition-free school. Passionate about art, History and histories, culture and words, he obtained his Master in Fine Art from Yale University in 2001, and shortly after exposed his first solo show in Chicago in 2002.
The man is talented and can paint anything, from the High Renaissance or the late French Rococo to the 19th century. However, the recognition he gained through the years is not only due to his talent to mimic the Old Masters, but to his timely intelligence in inserting extremely realistic and aesthetic Black figures as well as multiple references to the hip-hop culture and fashion in his gigantic works. With always this idea to serve the purpose of including the ones that were left outside the museums.
Since then, he had many successes, many awards and honours, especially in the United States: in 2015 he was awarded the US State Department Medal of Arts, in 2018 he received the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal at Harvard University, Massachusetts and in June 2019 he was honoured by The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York.
In Europe, he is famous for being the first Black artist to paint a US president’s official portrait: Barack Obama (2018) and the first African American artist to be commissioned by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to do so.
A commercial success and a pop icon
Wiley is a prolific artist – can one man produce so much work in so little time? Articles here and there mention he has a team of assistants in China, who paint meticulously the backgrounds of his paintings and reproduce the often-used brand logos. But when asked by New York magazine about it, he had a mischievous answer: “I don’t want you to know every aspect of where my hand starts and ends, or how many layers go underneath the skin, or how I got that glow to happen.” 
Let’s put this mere technical and logistical questions on the side. Wiley is not the first artist to use a team of assistants, some Old (and less old) Masters had some too, and if that is what is needed to spread the word, then be it.
He partnered with Puma in 2009-2010 to create a lifestyle collection of apparel, footwear and accessories in the context of the World Cup 2010 held in South Africa. On his Instagram, in the midst of the vibrant colours of his paintings can be found pictures of him with Jay-Z, Naomi Campbell, and even Prince Charles. He has even become a question at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
More recently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted its 10th annual Art + Film Gala, in his honour (as well as Amy Sherald and Steven Spielberg’s). The event, attended by 650 notable guests, presented by Gucci and supported by Audi, raised $5 million to support the museum’s film projects, exhibitions, programming, and acquisitions.  It must have been an uncanny feeling to be surrounded by Hollywood movie stars, fashion and art icons, back in this place where Wiley used to walk into as a kid to see Kerry James Marshall’s grand barbershop painting, one of the too few representations of Black figures in the public space at the time.
Political and impactful
Beyond the glitters and the commercial aspects of his practice, Kehinde Wiley’s powerful images are political and impactful.
In 2018, the artist was chosen as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world. LL Cool J, an actor and Grammy-winning musician, describes him in simple but true words: “Kehinde Wiley is a classically, formally trained artist who is transforming the way African Americans are seen”. 
Kehinde Wiley gives back – in 2019, he founded Black Rock, a residency programme based in Dakar, Senegal.
It was love at first sight when Wiley first landed in Senegal back in 1997, and it is no surprise this is where he decided to create an artistic workspace twenty years later.
The programme, by bringing together international artists to live and work in the beautiful purpose-built complex designed by Sir David Adjaye Obe, encourages and supports international and creative collaboration between artists of all genre and colours.
Wiley himself has a dedicated workspace there that allows him to develop his practice from a non-Western perspective, and to once again “incite change in the global discourse about what Africa means today.” 
👉🏾The Prelude is at The National Gallery, London, from 10 December 2021 to 18 April 2022 – Free exhibition (Sunley Room).
 Kehinde Wiley, ‘FAQ’, https://kehindewiley.com/
 Dionne Searcey, ‘Kehinde Wiley on Protests’ Results: ‘I’m Not Impressed Yet’, published Aug. 28, 2020, updated Sept. 8, 2020, The New York Times, Kehinde Wiley on Protests’ Results: ‘I’m Not Impressed Yet’ – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
 Searcey, ‘Kehinde Wiley on Protests’ Results: ‘I’m Not Impressed Yet’
 Searcey, ‘Kehinde Wiley on Protests’ Results: ‘I’m Not Impressed Yet
 Deborah Solomon, ‘Kehinde Wiley Puts a Classical Spin on His Contemporary Subjects’, published Jan. 28, 2015, The New York Times, Kehinde Wiley Puts a Classical Spin on His Contemporary Subjects – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
 Kadish Morris, ‘Artist Kehinde Wiley: ‘The new work is about what it feels like to be young, Black and alive in the 21st century’, published Nov. 21, 2021, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/nov/21/artist-kehinde-wiley-prelude-national-gallery-interview
 In 2018, one of the question asked during the game “Who wants to be a millionaire” was about Wiley’s ‘President Barack Obama’: “Unveiled in 2018 and now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of Barack Obama depicts the former president with what ?” source: Kehinde Wiley’s Instagram page
 The Editors, ‘A Starry Night at LACMA’s 10th Annual Art + Film Gala’, Nov. 7, 2021, Town&Country, A Starry Night at LACMA’s 10th Annual Art + Film Gala (townandcountrymag.com)
LL Cool J, ‘Kehinde Wiley’, Time, https://time.com/collection/most-influential-people-2018/5217612/kehinde-wiley/
 Black Rock Senegal, Our Story – Black Rock Senegal