Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

The work of British-Ghanaian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b.1977) addresses a very timely question, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times: “How do we read artistic images of black people?” Where non-white subjects have featured in historical European painting, they have been treated as exotic specimens, often depicted in servile roles. 

Yiadom-Boakye’s art turns this convention on its head, using the most traditional of Western art forms – oil portraiture on canvas – to create “sombre, slightly blurry” likenesses of ordinary black people that allude to Manet, Goya and Sargent. The people the artist paints are both “enigmatic” and oddly familiar – yet they are entirely imaginary, based on “found images, memories, imaginings and dreams”. Sometimes painted in groups but mostly pictured alone, these fictitious sitters wear “nondescript” clothes. Their “teeth, eyes and bleach-white shirts” gleam out from murky backgrounds. As this new exhibition at Tate Britain demonstrates, the effect is “strange”, “striking” and “unsettling”. Seen together, they make for an “imposing” show that could hardly have come at “a more apposite moment”. Yiadom-Boakye is no campaigner, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph: her paintings do not directly address causes like Black Lives Matter. Instead, she has explained, her work is about saying that black people have “always been here... self-sufficient, outside of nightmares and imaginations”. She depicts ordinary people doing mundane things: “smiling, smoking, lounging on beaches, peering through binoculars”. It’s a laudable aim – but it’s a great shame that the paintings themselves aren’t all that good. 

Yiadom-Boakye displays mere “portrait-prize competence”. Seen en masse, these works start to seem repetitive: her subjects are usually young and attractive, and the mood is one of “modish melancholy”. What’s more, the titles Yiadom- Boakye (who is also a poet) gives her canvases are risibly “pretentious”: Mystic Edifice depicts nothing more profound than a “chap with a red towel on his head”; another work portraying “a couple of blokes smoking on a sofa” is inexplicably entitled Coagulant Dangers. Her portraits “don’t always work”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. But at their best, they’re very impressive. Yiadom- Boakye gives her imaginary cast a novelistic quality, distilling entire narratives into single images – they are “paintings of states of being, states of the human soul”. Her work is “saturated in painterly erudition”: The Ventricular gives us a man in a red shirt who vividly recalls “the intimate pastels of Degas”; the young man in For the Sake of Angels echoes Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. More often than not, the effect is beguiling. “Serious painters who stick with it improve with age.” I confidently look forward to the day when Yiadom-Boakye is “a living old master”.

 

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