Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Prior to London being plunged into yet another lockdown, the first in-depth celebration of the artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was showing at the capital’s Tate Britain gallery. Fly in League with the Night spans the London-born artist’s career from 2003 up until the paintings she made at the height of last year’s coronavirus pandemic. Yiadom-Boakye, who is of Ghanaian descent, has become renowned for her expressive and profound portraits of fictional characters, the interpretation of whom she leaves to her viewers. By placing her subjects against muted backdrops outside of specific historical locations, her images become surrounded by a symbolic space in which the gallery-goer can safely make their own assessment undisturbed by didacticism.
Even the titles of Yiadom-Boakye’s work provide the viewer with room to manoeuvre their own interpretation. They are staunchly non-explanatory or descriptive and instead, they dreamily and poetically evoke references distinctly at odds with the prosaic scenes she captures. The literary flights of fancy in which her titles indulge, expose the artist’s additional occupation as a writer of poems and short stories and suggest that for her, there is little distinction between her painted and written work. As Zadie Smith wrote in her exceptional New Yorker profile of the artist: ‘Her titles run parallel to the images, and – like the human figures they have chosen not to describe or explain – radiate an uncanny self-containment and serenity. The canvas is the text.’
By subscribing to Smith’s opinion of each picture as a text, or at least a self-contained narrative that has sprung from the artist’s imagination, there is a sense of contented completion in Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings. As viewers we know little about her subjects, but simultaneously we are not required to. The sitters possess a contentment and poise that means we are not compelled to mine the picture for their dark secrets or the hidden meaning at the work’s core. In Black Allegiance to the Cunning (2018), the subject sits on a simple stool with his legs crossed and his arms crossed at the wrists. He seems at ease with himself and engages confidently with the artist. His clothes, which consist of a sage green shirt and deep charcoal trousers are the uniform of a modern young professional, perhaps one who works in the creative industries, maybe advertising or tech? So far so normal, or at least so recognisable. Below his seat however, and with a similar self-centred smile, lies a fox. Resting contentedly on the black and white tiled floor, the animal provides a counterpoint to the human’s sober clothes and the painting’s dark and oppressive background. Yet, the fox’s folkloric heritage means that it also serves a metaphorical purpose. Since medieval times it has been associated with wit, guile and transformation, and I am struck by the animal’s recurrence throughout the exhibit. It features much more surreptitiously in Daydreaming of Devils (2016) and Solitaire (2015) but it is in this picture that the artist’s imagination really soars. The animal’s presence is unexpected and the sitter’s open smile conveys his amusement at the viewer’s surprise in seeing his nocturnal companion. It feels as if the sitter has played an elaborate trick on us and devised his own interpretation of a portrait, for this is not the painting you thought it was.
In another playful subversion of traditional art forms, images of dancers speckle the exhibition, reminding one of Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist who featured them in over half of his works. The crucial difference between Degas and his artistic descendant however, is that Yiadom-Boakye’s dancers are Black, allowing her to overthrow ballet’s classic, and one might argue white, Eurocentric codification to create an entirely different viewing experience. In A Concentration (2018) she paints four Black male dancers, three of whom are clad entirely in black and compose their own little troika as they appear to be taking a break. The two figures to the far left of the image have relaxed postures and regard each other conspiratorially while the third retains a more rigid posture as he listens to their chatter. All three boys stand apart from the fourth dancer whose white leggings and active pose mean that he is starkly isolated from his classmates. His body arches with balletic grace and the palpability of his movement and exertion inserts yet another divide into the scene so that it lacks the homosocial affection that permeates other pictures of men and boys together in this exhibition. In A Complication (2013) for instance, a quartet of young men stand casually together with their arms slung around each other’s shoulders. Their uniform green jersey and the easy camaraderie of their body language insinuates that they belong to a sports team and are united in a common goal against a shared opponent. A Concentration however, possesses a much stronger element of individualism which is most notably signified by the dancers’ attire. The separate figure to the right of the picture demonstrates the singular nature of a pursuit where one’s own classmates are an obstacle to the summit of premier danseur noble.
Yet in Confidences (2010) such competition is non-existent. As the title so beautifully implies these ballerinos appear to be sharing their deepest secrets with each other, and with them, much affection. One dancer leans towards the other and the dancer on the left looks out at the viewer but his torso remains turned towards his friend, creating the impression that we are watching a secret being shared. In allowing us to witness this exchange Lynette Yiadom-Boakye also exposes the rich interiority of, and rich connections between young Black men and destabilises another cultural conception, what the writer JJ Bola has called: ‘the colonial projections and impositions on the Black male identity – sexual insatiability and aggressiveness, athleticism and violence.’ By situating the Black male body in the rarefied world of dance as opposed to the stereotypical boxing ring or on the football pitch, the artist rescues her subjects from the ‘othering’ that has routinely befallen the Black body in Western art history. In Yiadom-Boakye’s work the proliferation of Black ballet dancers renders them unremarkable. They have carved out their own space and exist on their own terms in what has historically been a very narrow and very white narrative as if their determination has arisen from the artist’s own sentiments: ‘I’ve never liked being told who I am … to be measured relative to something that actually has nothing to do with your experience’. Confidences can then be regarded as a visual manifesto for the artist’s determination to challenge the viewer’s preconceptions and introduce them to her vision of an alternative world.
When looking at Daydreaming of Devils (2016) however, the viewer receives the acute impression that the subject has no need to be told who he is. His flamboyance and self-possession radiate from the painting. He points his toe, lifts his heel and places his hands on his hips as if he is about to deliver a performance against the frantic background of shimmering teal and saffron. These scintillating colours distinguish the work from its many contemporaries in which the artist favours sombre backdrops and instead helps to convey a vitality that is crucial to the picture’s sense of motion. This kineticism combines with the striking subject who, with his outrageous fox stole and dramatic pose, conjures up the words and images automatically associated with the Afrobeats pioneer Fela Kuti. The latter’s song ‘Water No Get Enemy’ is even on an exhibition playlist compiled by Yiadom-Boakye so that his sonic cameo alongside this artistic imago renders his spirit palpable. I am especially struck by the blush pink of the Fela substitute’s fox stole, and while I have commented on the frequent appearances that animal makes here, I must also mention the repetition of the colour pink: from shades of sugared almond, to neon, to Pepto Bismol. Although small, these bursts appear deliberate, as if to enliven other muted colours or to inject a symbolic dash of the feminine into what masquerade as male-dominated images like Wrist Action (2010) or The Complication (2013). Its entrance into these pictures is indeed something of a surprise, but a delightful one. It is experienced like a sugar hit from an especially decadent cupcake whose frosting has been cheekily smeared across several canvases.
Yiadom-Boakye’s playful inclusion of this colour in her work is yet another indication that she tailors her pictures to reflect her own vision and experience of the world. Her paintings are created entirely from her imagination and represent what she wishes to bring into existence, not what the viewer’s canonically influenced mind believes they should encounter. This is why the titles of her pieces do not explain or describe anything; their interpretation is entirely subjective. One interpretation is the artist’s, while the viewer is free to find their own. By giving herself the latitude to construct an entire universe of her own choosing, Yiadom-Boakye is also challenging an art world order. The series, sitters and locations that she chooses to represent lose their alienness and instead become beautifully quotidian, conveying that they have always existed, quietly constructing their own narrative on their own terms.
Lisa Clark Goodrum is currently a freelance editor and proofreader who has previously worked for companies such as I.B.Tauris and Bloomsbury. She specialises in commissioning narrative non-fiction, especially biography, memoir, art history, gender studies, popular culture and cultural criticism. She is a bookworm, art lover, dog obsessive and fanatical Manchester United fan. You can find her on Instagram @lougood83.
Find out more about the exhibition here.