Many Infinities: The Vital Canvases of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

To get a handle on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's paintings, turn off the audio guide and turn up the music, finds Poppy Richler

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Condor and the Mole (2011), Arts Council Collection [London, UK] © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

A stranger sits across from you cross-legged, leaning in to hear you speak, a smile on his face, his eyelids half-closed to signal he’s relaxed in your presence. You’re not just intrigued by him: he seems interested in you too. This is the first figure that we are greeted with upon entering Fly In League With The Night, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s seminal exhibition at the Tate Britain. Black Allegiance To The Cunning (2018) sets up the connection between viewer and painted subject that runs through the seventy-painting retrospective of the artist’s career so far. Be prepared for a handful of conversations you desperately want to be involved in, backstories you want to dive into. Who are these people? What year is it and where are we? Such questions are futile; these figures come from Yiadom-Boakye’s mind – they do not exist in the real world, and thus call upon viewers to use their imagination to realise them as such.

Yiadom-Boakye’s studies at both the Falmouth School of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts gave her a background in classical forms of portraiture. The figures she’s created in her imagination are borne out of a variety of different movements, postures, photographs and memories. Look at Six Birds In The Bush (2015): the sitter faces us, his shoulders turned away, a plumed hat on his head. This perspective resembles dignified sitters throughout the ages: Godfried Schalcken’s portrait of Rachel Ruysch (c. 1690-1700) or Rembrandt’s Old Man With a Gold Chain (1631). Though this head may reference sixteenth-century Dutch Golden Age personae, each canvas remains remarkably timeless. Note the lack of shoes running through the exhibition. Many of the sitters are either cut off at the waist, barefoot, or at most in socks. The four dancers huddling in A Transformation (2022) may be performing today or seventy years ago. Similarly, the enviously trendy woman in No Objection To Noises (2019) dons a pair of thin sunglasses, bohemian clothing and a silver crucifix: she may have just walked out of a charity shop, or actually owned these clothes herself in the 90s. Combined with the nondescript, plainly coloured backdrops, we have no choice but to create backstories for the people standing across from us at eye level.

However, not all the figures share the same demeanour as Black Allegiance To The Cunning. Many hold an air of mystery – the ballet dancers in A Transformation are deep in conversation with one another, the front figure even turns his head and looks us in the eye, asking why we’re eavesdropping. Is that better or worse than the woman in No Objection To Noises who faces away from us with total disinterest? At least the gesticulating speaker in An Education (2010) holds his arms open to welcome us into the speech gripping his fellow suited colleagues. Or are they friends? Family? The decision is ours – a prospect that captivates some, terrifies others. Perhaps the paintings’ potential to perplex is the key to the entrance figure’s smile – we will never know.

Yiadom-Boakye has a skill in relaying emotion. The figures’ psychological impact on us is profound – we treat and respond to each character as if they aren’t two-dimensional. We are ushered into a theatre of dancers and actors – some literal, others encapsulating the elegance of Degas’ young ballerinas. However, what makes you so sure this performance is for us? It is for the figures in the paintings who live a life separate to ours.

Importantly, the exhibition is not chronological. Yiadom-Boakye creates conversations between paintings – she wanted to “think about a dialogue between the works, much the way [she does] when they’re in the studio, and also to consider the sequence or rhythm as you move through the galleries.” This rhythm and movement underline the theatricality that sits at the heart of the exhibition. The far-right figure practices his choreography in Transformation, whilst the performer in Dangle the Keys to a Kingdom (2022) holds his ankle to his contorted back with his right hand, while his left vogues. Even when musicality isn’t overtly present, it hangs in the air.

“I always think of my painting influences as really going hand in hand with musical influences. That has to do with what I listened to in my formative years – that’s why Prince always comes up. But then, when I started to listen to jazz, it marked my thinking about rhythm. Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Passages in sound that move unexpectedly. Or the tones in the voice of Nick Drake.”

The Tate has handily created a playlist for the exhibition, comprising sixty-six songs that inspire the artist in her studio. This should be emphasised more than it currently is, especially before visitors enter the exhibition. Throw away your audio guide and plug in your headphones. Let Miles Davis’ dense jazz fusion rhythms from Live – Evil (1971) soundtrack the performance about to take place in No Need Of Speech (2018). Recline on the beach next to the man in 6pm Cadiz (2012) and listen to Sketches of Spain (1960) play out of your phone. Or maybe outstretch your arms and groove along with the figure in The Ventricular (2018), whose red shirt and ruby velvet sofa only add to the lush and undeniably sexy Voodoo by D’Angelo (2000). See how freeing it is to not be burdened by art speak!

Yiadom-Boakye’s colour schemes are flooded with shadows and dramatic lighting harking back to Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. By spotlighting specific elements of the painting, the artist inadvertently asks the viewer to reflect on why they’ve done this.

In Wrist Action (2010), the sitter turns their head towards us with a seemingly sinister grin. It could be friendly, but there is something about their bright-pink gloved right hand that is unsettling. Have they been caught red (or pink) handed? These colour choices establish a visual hierarchy, and draw attention to props which should be focused on, for some reason or other…

Though imagination is encouraged, Yiadom-Boakye’s curatorial spirit subtly guides our mind. She has hung all the paintings herself – each has been put into conversation with each other based on the artist’s preference. The final painting is the one she considers most special. The Stygian Silk (2020) “encapsulates all the feelings” of the exhibition and represents her experiments in exploring colour on linen as opposed to canvas: the former used for its “much coarser and unbending depth” as opposed to the smooth ease of drawing a brush across a canvas. This painting embraces a finality – the sitter is surrounded by jet black hounds and leans on the table behind him, bidding farewell. This painting represents just one element of the artist’s presence. We also know that she attended Falmouth School of Art. Returning to 6pm Cadiz, it seems likely that living by the English Channel aided her creation of coastal landscapes.

“My way of thinking is informed by who, where I was raised … it’s a life lived.”

This quote from the artist is vital in understanding why all the figures in this exhibition are Black. To ignore this fact, especially in the whitewashed context of the Tate Britain, would be naïve. However, there is a fine line between acknowledging this and reading too much into the racial identity of each character.

“Blackness has never been other to me. Therefore, I’ve never felt the need to explain its presence in the work anymore than I’ve felt the need to explain my presence in the world, however often I’m asked … it isn’t so much about placing Black people in the canon as it is about saying that we’ve always been here, we’ve always existed.”

Yiadom-Boakye is British-Ghanian and has noted that this cultural heritage has undoubtedly influenced her life-experience. Each figures’ abstract identity celebrates the “infinite possibilities of blackness” as expressed by the artist herself.

Fly In League With The Night harnesses many infinities. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is the creator and curator. But she allows us our own imagination. With the arrival of each viewer, a different story is born. The image captions would serve better use as placards for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and the figures themselves are so real in our minds that it’s almost bittersweet when we leave. This exhibition is so important in pushing curatorial practice forwards, especially at the Tate Britain – an institution that hangs so many traces of colonialism on its walls. But Lynette Yiadom-Boakye does not dismiss these traditional modes of art – she embraces them, and in doing so demonstrates the endless potential of creative practice to create a more inclusive art world.

“Following my own nose and doing as I damned well pleased always seemed to me to be the most radical thing I could do.”

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