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  • Writer's pictureKyra Latinwo

The Prelude by Kehinde Wiley : Review & Analysis

National Gallery visitors were introduced to a new face of art when African American portrait painter Kehinde Wiley brought Haiti, Senegal and London together in thought-provoking exhibition, The Prelude. The project, which sees regular modern day black people guest star in classic European paintings, comprises five paintings and a film of roughly forty-five minutes featured across six channels.

Photo credit: Stephen Friedman Gallery

You are welcomed to the exhibition with a statement wall announcing the artist, accompanied by a brief description of the project. “Wiley’s practice is based on reinterpreting and disrupting the Western artistic canon” the wall reads, reiterating that he is not just attempting to address the issue of absence, but the issue of narrative. It is not that black people do not appear in classic art, but “if they appear, how do they appear” in Kehinde’s own words from an interview with Christine Riding, Head of the Curatorial Department at the National Gallery. Wiley wishes to see black people as the central figure in art history and not just the servant.

To the right of the statement wall in an oval frame, two young men peer out of a small rowboat, lost in hues of blue and green. One sits at the foot of the boat, oars in hand, while the other searches for land. Opposite sits a similar painting: slightly more frantic, two new characters are engineering the same activity in their own boat. These characters exist in a world of Hieronymus Bosch c.1490-1500 yet they are illustrated with 21st century style clothing: jeans, knee-length beach shorts and wristwatches. The antithesis of the character’s surroundings and the character's very being is almost as sharp a contrast as the classical orchestral score by Niles Luther that plays over Wiley’s film. During the end of a section of the film titled “Bergschrund”, Mendelssolhn’s Octet in E Flat Major plays infused with the snare of trap beats known to the hip-hop genre. The piece is romantic and potent as it is prototypical to classical music but the presence of black culture is made known. This is a tumultuous theme that continues to appear throughout the exhibition through a number of modes. The message is as clear as it is demanding of our attention.

Photo credit: Stephen Friedman Gallery

The placement of the film’s characters in an abyss of snow and Norwegian fjords is by no mistake, and this decision is as intentional as the romantic concept of self-discovery and exploration that is laced in the plotline. Wiley’s protagonists are black wanderers lost in a world where everything is white, and they become so consumed in this whiteness that they freeze. In arguably the most uncomfortable scene of the film, three men stand eyes locked onto the camera, each of the men occupying a full screen all to themselves. They bare a full dentured grin that never falters despite the shivering of their bodies that are clearly rejecting the conditions of their environment. The camera begins to zoom-in in painfully slow increments. The closer we are to their faces, the more apparent their true feelings become: the men are in torment. And they’re not smiling at all - what’s painted on their face is a grimace accompanied with tears that never quite manage to escape the eye. A woman’s voice recites the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and “A man is a facade of a temple wherein all wisdom and all good abide” is a line that sticks out as the men fight the urge to give in, to cry out in agony. As they fight to hold on to their mask. Until they finally let go. And one by one, the screens begin to go out in the order of the men who could no longer wear their smile.

Photo credit: Stephen Friedman Gallery

In what I consider the most powerful scene, a scene that moves away from black trauma and more into the realm of escapism, we witness a group of young people playing games with one another, full of life and sincere joy. As a viewer you wonder where it is they get their energy from; why they’re not exhausted or in turmoil. You beg the question: “What makes your smile genuine?” Your question is answered when we follow the youth to their final destination. As the night grows, a community of youth and adults gather around an untameable fire in a display that feels almost ritualistic. They stand around the flames, drawn in like moths to a light; empowered, re-energised and liberated. Soon, the screen has been covered by the red-yellow glow. Where before they had been submerged by the ice, they have now been consumed in the ember. And the next morning, they chase the sun through mountains with a newfound vitality and the promise of tomorrow. Make no mistake: they are still lost, but they live to fight another day.

Written by: Kyra Latinwo


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