The tender fictions of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

This review of ‘Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night’ at Tate Britain, London, was published in the February 2021 issue of Apollo. The exhibition reopens on May 17 and will run until May 31.

This sentence shines on a wall at the entrance to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s show at Tate Britain: “But the idea of ​​infinity, of a life and a world of infinite possibilities, where everything is possible for you, unconstrained by other people’s nightmarish fantasies, having the presence of mind to walk as wildly as you want, that’s what I think about the most, that’s the direction I’ve always wanted to go These are his own words, and they carry an extra luster given the literary branch of his art (poems, occasional prose, animal fables), and which, in their yearning for existential freedom, convey the atmosphere of his paintings. , their auras of cryptic distance but bold, living presence, as if the act of creating them were the wish itself.

no need to talk (2018), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Carnie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Pictured: Bryan Conley; © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

The figures in these paintings walk wildly, in their loose dark lines and muted landscapes, casual gesture and gentle gaze. Their thoughts are entirely their own as they gaze in mottled sepia with a touch of gold, like the woman caught in contemplation in Penny for them (2014), or sitting troubled and tired in the diptych Pale for rapture (2016) with its contrasting plaid sofas. They hold council with birds, an owl perched in their hand, or a shockingly bright parrot gleaming in the grip of a man’s enveloping darkness. Sometimes they dance, like the young men at the ballet barre at A focus (2018), or laughing or smiling inwardly, or looking at each other directly as the two boys no need to talk (2018). This painting in particular evokes an emotional charge, given the systematic negative reduction of black boys in the mainstream depiction, but Yiadom-Boakye wants to capture the subject beyond all that, in the freer, almost possible infinite space. Her men, women, and children, spun out of her imagination, look like they’ve been tossed about heavily. They are not constrained by these “nightmarish fantasies” and are simply allowed to live, to be; strident but languid, close to joy. “I don’t like to paint victims,” ​​said the artist.

A Concentration (2018), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.  Carter collection.

A focus (2018), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Carter collection. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

‘Fly In League With The Night’ is the first major survey of Yiadom-Boakye’s work, with some 80 oil paintings spanning almost two decades, from his training at the Royal Academy Schools to recent pieces created in his East London studio and, on a smaller scale, at his South London home during lockdown. The paintings, some on canvas, others on herringbone linen, are hung low for closer impact and, non-chronologically, arranged in communication with each other. There are the bright and spectacular reds of the opening room where an impetuous and carnal first work, First (2003), is positioned alongside the refined, but no less imposing, subject of Any number of concerns (2010) in her vermilion draped dress and white slippers (a direct nod to John Singer Sargent’s film Dr. Pozzi at home); while next to it is a crimson-tongued fox under a stool on which a man sits carefree and leaning forward, both welcoming and locked in darkness. Further on, a set of softer, shaded outdoor scenes with figures walking and talking, lounging on the sand or watching in silence, give a calmer and brighter effect; a highlight here is Condor and the Mole (2011), one of Yiadom-Boakye’s relatively rare depictions of children, two black girls playing on a beach, the kind of rural image we have hardly seen before in this style of painting.

Condor and the Mole (2011), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.  Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London.

Condor and the Mole (2011), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

It is the absence of black subjects in traditional Western portraiture, from which Yiadom-Boakye draws much of her influence, that makes these paintings inherently revolutionary, but her approach to painting, her relationship to it, the way she makes her talk, is more the point. Its many shadows are rich and colorful, never hollow, slightly hazy with a suggestion of green, in the green the yellow, the brown, or there is the faint expanse of midnight purple behind the shining feather of the hat of Six birds in the bush (2015), almost making the soft brown of the face and the beige of the eyes move towards you. With a white flash she brings laughter, or drifts smoke. White dances monochrome circles on a t-shirt against the darkness of 11 p.m. Tuesday (2010), making the fabric fly and lift around the slightly radiant figure, creating breeze, light, air. These endless adventures in color play, signal and decide for themselves, the artist acting as a conduit. There are the pink and mustard ties in what I consider avuncular paintings – tenderly rendered depictions of aging men toasting or joining arms – then the jubilant, endless greens of the four young men in Complication (2013), my favorite for its quiet humor and brotherly love.

Complication (2013), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.  Private collection.

Complication (2013), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Private collection. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

The titles of Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits are “an additional brush mark”, she says, and can be seen as bridges between her painting and her writing. There are no explanatory captions accompanying the images, only the possibilities hinted primarily by their names. Likewise, the paintings are devoid of temporal specificities of clothes or objects or defined places, and the subjects themselves are imaginary rather than real beings, characters obtained by a process of composition, begun without preliminary sketches or outlines. . These arrivals are made possible by the clearance of space; reality is stripped down so that the human figure can be captured in its immediate lucidity, untainted by the mitigating associations of societal identification and circumstance. Toni Morrison once wrote of James Baldwin’s work, “You gave us pause,” and Baldwin being cherished by Yiadom-Boakye, that seems an apt observation. It gives us food for thought by drawing what has been kept in the shadows – misunderstood, ignored, ignored – into the light of near transcendence. And she does not deny the shadow, but makes it part of history, a place of permanent but peaceful resistance.

Yiadom-Boakye’s work is a triumphant demonstration of the artist’s power to recreate, reclaim and restore the world for the time of the gaze. I found it hard to leave the cuteness of this show, but the voice of the painting went with me.

Excerpt from the February 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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