Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ship of Fools by Kehinde Wiley on show at Queens House in Greenwich

Ship of Fools (2017) 
© Kehinde Wiley
2724mm x 2225mm oil on canvas
Courtesy of Kehinde Wiley and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
The first work by the American artist Kehinde Wiley  to be acquired by a public collection in the UK went on show today at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London.

The painting 'Ship of Fools' (2017) has been acquired by the Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) with the help of the Art Fund
Ship of Fools is a large oil painting that depicts a group of four migrants in a rickety boat with a tree trunk growing where the mast would be. Like many of the artist’s other works, Ship of Fools responds to an old master painting: in this case, Hieronymus Bosch’s panel of the same name in the collection of the Louvre.

Ship of Fools makes visible not only the problems that confront contemporary migrants, but also the invisible legacies that informed maritime history and indeed the genre of marine painting.
In the  painting, Wiley’s contemporary subjects are displaced, nameless sea-faring migrants in search of a better life who represent the perilous journey millions make today in an age of increasingly closed borders.
Wiley draws direct inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch’s own mysterious and influential scene of the same title which was created in the late 15th or early 16th century and which critiques the misbehaviour of then-contemporary clergy. Whilst Bosch’s painting depicts gluttony and desire and follows the traditional allegory of the ‘Ship of Fools’ - a ship struggling to keep its course due to a dysfunctional crew - Wiley instead gives his subjects a more heroic demeanour, suggesting that ‘foolishness’ comes from their willingness to risk everything in the search for a better life in the context of a world that typically ignores their desperation. Viewers of the painting are thus placed in the uncomfortable position of examining their own feelings and actions about migration and the migration crisis today.
Kehinde Wiley (b.1977) was recently in the news for his official portrait of President Barack Obama (see The response to the Obama Portraits) .  He was also listed in 2018’s TIME Magazine ‘100 most influential people’ list and hence can properly be regarded as one of the most significant contemporary American artists.

He's best known for majestic large scale paintings that feature people of African heritage. His works explore themes of race, identity and power that challenge the absence of people of colour from traditional art histories.

The painting was created for Wiley’s recent exhibition, In Search of the Miraculous, at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London

'Ship of Fools' is a traditional theme which a number of painters have reflected by prior to Wiley.  
  • The ship of fools is an allegory, originating from Book VI of Plato's Republic, about a ship with a dysfunctional crew
  • The concept makes up the framework of the 15th-century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant
  • This as the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch's painting, Ship of Fools: a ship—an entire fleet at first—sets off from Basel, bound for the Paradise of Fools.
  • The tree in Wiley's painting reflects  the version painted by Hieronymus Bosch as part of a triptych. The Ship of Fools was painted on one of the wings of the altarpiece, and is about two thirds of its original length - and is now in the Louvre.
Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch
58 cm × 33 cm (22.8 in × 13.0 in)
The contemporary allegory of Wiley’s Ship of Fools helps to bridge the gap between the old master paintings in the Museum’s collection and current political and social issues.

This acquisition will enable the Museum to explore its important holdings related to slavery, migration, and colonialism, and help shed new light on the Museum’s world renowned collection of marine paintings.

Exhibition information for visitors:


  • Venue: Queen’s House, Greenwich
  • Dates: From 1pm, 26 April 2018
  • Opening times: every day, 10.00 – 17.00
  • Visitor enquiries: 020 8858 4422
  • Admission: Free
  • Website: www.rmg.co.uk/Kehinde-Wiley

1 comment:

Val said...

An amazing painting, so relevant to today's disgraceful migrant crisis caused by mankind's inhumanity to man.