Kehinde Wiley, who has just been tasked with painting Barack Obama’s portrait, is known for his paintings of young black men and women in the style of European Old Masters. But last night at the British Film Institute in London, Wiley unveiled his first film, Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), which looks at migration, madness and colonisation in contemporary America.
Taking its title from an allegorical term that is both a literary device and an historic act (whereby towns expelled madmen in boats), the film shows a group of men from remote island nations navigating ocean shallows. In one scene their faces peer above the water’s edge, in another the figures silently stand in groups contemplating the sea. Another shot offers a bird’s-eye view, following the men swimming as a collective.
“[Narrenschiff] easily becomes a metaphor for migration, [it resonates with] images we see of black bodies moving through water,” Wiley says. “I am responding to the society I am given, the timing is not accidental.” The film is narrated by the actress C.C.H. Pounder who reads from Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and Frantz Fanon’s influential ant-colonialist text, The Wretched of the Earth.
Wiley observes that it is a critical moment not only in the US, with Donald Trump’s push to fortify borders, but also in Europe. “The work speaks to a society willing to self-destruct instead of seeing itself in a new light. Strangely it’s about Brexit,” he says.
Water is also portrayed as a force for good in the film. “I was looking at water as a safe place and as scary as hell. It is luxuriant and also something that could throw you into darkness. For me, that was the call to arms,” he says. Narrenschiff goes on show today at Stephen Friedman gallery together with nine new “maritime paintings” featuring the same men in the film.
The move from painting to film was organic, Wiley says. “No one is able to pose for a painting any more, but you can create photo shoots and paint from them,” he says. “I am used to having camera crews with me and I think it’s really cool to extend that practice [into film]. From Kanye West to Obama, this is a tool that can celebrate an individual and highlight any absences.”
Wiley set up a studio in Beijing in 2006 and employs assistants there to paint his backgrounds, particularly the bold patterned textile backgrounds of his earlier works (“I don’t paint flowers,” he says, noting that it can take up to a month and a half for him to complete a figure). So will he himself paint Obama’s portrait? Having signed a confidentiality agreement, Wiley refuses to be drawn, except to say that he is working on several versions.