Turning the tide on maritime painting: Kehinde Wiley in The Queen’s House

The recent acquisition of Kehinde Wiley’s Ship of Fools has prompted a ‘sea change’ in how visitors can view the subjects and history of the collection housed in the Queen’s House.  

By Laura House

Enter the King’s Presence Chamber and you will discover an imposing canvas facing opposite the portrait of Charles I. Four young figures float on choppy waves in a crude raft, while a threatening sky looms over the horizon. While the figures’ style of dress places them in a contemporary setting, the subject, a maritime scene, is not out of place in the Queen’s House. This work is Kehinde Wiley’s Ship of Fools (2017), a recent and noteworthy acquisition for the Queen’s House. Wiley, a well-known figure in the contemporary art world, has soared to new heights in recent months after securing the commission for Barack Obama’s presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Ship of Fools provides a powerful counterpoint to other artworks in the Queen’s House collection, encouraging new perspectives about historical maritime painting.

Wiley chooses to subvert the traditional power dynamics of European painting by inserting black individuals into scenes normally reserved for white noblemen

Born in 1977 to a Nigerian father and African American mother, Wiley was first introduced to art as a means of avoiding the aggressive gang culture around his home in South Central Los Angeles. Regular visits to institutions such as the Huntington Art Gallery brought Wiley face-to-face with the paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, J.M.W. Turner and Hieronymus Bosch. These works presented Wiley with a world of power and privilege in which he did not feel included. In his own artistic practice, Wiley draws on the techniques of these old master painters. Crucially, Wiley chooses to subvert the traditional power dynamics of European painting by inserting black individuals into scenes normally reserved for white noblemen. In his works, Wiley delves into the history of painting while seeking to elevate the status of marginalised figures, creating a more inclusive genre of art.

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In creating Ship of Fools, Wiley took inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch, a 15th and 16th century Flemish painter best known for his fantastical scenes that convey moral narratives. Bosch’s own Ship of Fools (c. 1490-1500) originally served as part of a triptych for an altarpiece. Bosch depicts ten people adrift in a boat, with two other figures already cast overboard. The figures engage in a number of nonsensical activities that range from using ladles as oars to fighting over a pancake. The boat’s defining feature is a tree-like mast, from which a flag has been raised bearing a crescent moon (a symbol for lunacy). Bosch’s painting serves as an allegory for those who drift aimlessly in the sea of life. The figures are too preoccupied drinking to excess to notice that the absence of virtue has rendered their ship rudderless. Even the presence of the church (symbolised through the nun and friar) cannot save this group of fools.

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In Wiley’s version, the tree persists as a defining feature of the composition. However, the interpretation of Wiley’s Ship of Fools takes a very different course with the crucial detail that the figures depicted are not simply nondescript black individuals, but specific depictions of migrants from island nations. Their activity represents the precarious journey that thousands of immigrants and refugees endure today, in a world defined by heavily guarded borders. In this context, Wiley may be including the tree as a reference to the poverty and subsequent resourcefulness of the migrants. Alternatively, the tree could take on a more poetic connotation, defining the migrants as dreamers or even lunatics (like Bosch’s figures) who have elected to risk their lives for such an uncertain reward. While Bosch’s figures become endangered as a result of their excessive pleasures and vices, Wiley’s figures draw attention to the perilous fate of simply being vulnerable bodies on the open sea.

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Wiley’s imagining of the sea provides a sharp contrast with other maritime works in the collection, which champion voyage, conquest and power through scenes of naval battles, exotic discoveries and dignified portraits.

The knowledge of these figures’ cultural identities transforms Wiley’s seascape into a dark and sinister place. Wiley’s imagining of the sea provides a sharp contrast with other maritime works in the collection, which champion voyage, conquest and power through scenes of naval battles, exotic discoveries and dignified portraits. Acknowledging this historical view, Wiley has stated that ‘others might see maritime painting as a really wonderful way of looking at gentlemen’s leisure, or a certain aspect of Western ingenuity and know-how.’[1] However, to an artist like Wiley, the genre of maritime painting evokes an age of exploration that gave rise slavery, colonialism and genocide, among other human atrocities. A work like Ship of Fools demonstrates how we can look at the same object through a multitude of historical and cultural lenses, thus imbuing it with different meanings. Wiley’s painting both blends in with and also stares back at neighbouring historical works, creating a thought-provoking experience for visitors.