Exhibition Review: Kehinde Wiley's Prelude

Kehinde Wiley's Prelude at the National Gallery is a triumph.

Although small in size, the exhibition is no less compelling packing an emotional punch. 

The American artist is best known for his portraits capturing his subjects in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings, paying homage to European portraiture tradition by having contemporary Black sitters pose in positions held by celebrated historical, religious and mythological figures. In short, Wiley offers a reimagination of European art painting Black figures in spaces from which they are typically absent, eliciting questions around identity, power and privilege.  

In Prelude Wiley challenges the status quo in his recent landscape paintings, showcasing Black figures against dramatic backdrops of epic mountains, oceans and lakes. The exhibition features a small collection of oil on linen artworks from his Prelude series, accompanied by a short film of the same name.

"The relationship between man and nature......polarities between the mountains and the ocean......this is my starting point." Kehinde Wiley, 2021

Kehinde Wiley, 'Ship of Fools II', 2021 © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Galerie Templon, Paris.

Set in the little alcove of the National Gallery's Sunley room, the deep purple space is darkly lit, the low light adding to its moody atmosphere, allowing you to become fully immersed in the experience- just you and the art.

Wiley seeks to challenge artistic conventions of western landscape tradition with his bold Black figures that seem at home, yet simultaneously so out of place in their environment.

 Prelude interrogates man's estrangement from nature and in many ways from himself, the idea that we are invaders of it, alien to its functions and purposes. Coinciding with his exploration of the disconnect between humanity and the natural world, Prelude also offers a subtle discourse on human ideas about race and gender that can equally contribute to separation and alienation. 

Kehinde Wiley, 'Prelude (Babacar Mané)', 2021 © Kehinde Wiley Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Galerie Templon, Paris.

One piece that struck a chord was 'Prelude (Babacar Mané)', the piece features a man with braided hair looking over a stormy ocean, seeming strong and peaceful in spite of the battling elements. In fact, there's something almost biblical about, it reminded us of Moses and the Red Sea, perhaps that was what Kehinde was going for. However, what was most profound about the exhibition was the short film, Prelude, which was actually shot in Norway.

Image: A still from Kehinde Wiley, 'Prelude', 2021. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Galerie Templon, Paris.

The six-channel digital film explores the artistic and literary conventions of European and North American Romanticism. Representing the relationship between humans and nature, the short film is both moving and poignant. One word to describe the theme of the presentation would be reconnection, reconnection with ourselves and nature, and finding peace in our own solitude and independence of thought and being. 


If you have just 30 minutes and you are able to see the exhibition, it's something that we recommend that you experience for yourself.


Prelude closes on Monday 18 April 2022, book your free tickets in advance here. 


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