Kehinde Wiley's 'Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools)' (2017)
Kehinde Wiley's 'Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools)' (2017)

The art of Kehinde Wiley knows no borders. Having shot to fame last year when he painted Barack Obama’s portrait, which hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the US painter will now capture a new audience in Plymouth, Devon.

Wiley’s 2017 film Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), a dreamy love song to the ocean which simultaneously functions as a critique of slavery and colonialism, has been bought by the Contemporary Art Society’s (CAS) Collections Fund at Frieze. Acquired from the Stephen Friedman gallery at the fair this week, the film will be donated to The Box, Plymouth, a redevelopment of the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery slated to open in 2020.

The Collections Fund, set up in 2012 to purchase acquisitions at the fair for the CAS’s member museums, also purchased two works by multimedia artist Zadie Xa from Union Pacific gallery at Frieze. They will form part of The Box’s reopening displays, alongside Wiley’s film.

The mask (“Xixho”, 2018) and cloak (“91 Chyzanthemumz 4 Imsook”, 2018), which marry a kaleidoscope of fabrics and iconography, emerge partly from Xa’s hybrid identity. She was born in Canada, has Korean heritage and is based in London. However the works transcend all origins to become an autonomous statement. “They are my own alphabet,” Xa says.

CAS chose The Box out of a shortlist of six institutions. According to CAS director Caroline Douglas, the Plymouth institution’s determination to “highlight the relationship between Britain and the US” sealed their success. In 2020, The Box will mark the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, which carried the Pilgrims from Plymouth to Massachusetts and is a symbol of early European colonialism in North America.

Judith Roberts, arts and cultural development manager of The Box, says the acquisitions will “massively shift the identity” of the institution. “We are trying to think about the history of Plymouth as a point of historical departure and discovery but until now our resources have been limited.”

The permanent collection is a stronghold of 18th- and 19th-century maritime paintings alongside British modernists, including Peter Lanyon, known for his abstract seascapes. The presence of Wiley and Xa, who both explore migration and identity, stamp Plymouth’s journey with 21st-century relevance. Not only does Narrenschiff become the first film in the collection but the donations are the first inter­national contemporary works to be shown there.

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