Cut short in 2020 due to lockdown, Tate Britain’s exhibition Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night has returned to the gallery for a final three months after touring internationally. Open to the public until 26th February 2023, the exhibition showcases Yiadom-Boakye‘s cryptic portraits of fictitious people with poetic titles, which leave the viewer desperately trying to understand her intentions. Without explanatory labels, visitors are invited to interpret the paintings in relation to themselves and their circumstances. Yiadom-Boakye is both an artist and a writer who writes “about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about.” The exhibition is the first to celebrate Yiadom-Boakye’s work in depth, spanning from her graduation from the Royal Academy Schools in 2003 until her recent work of 2020.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in 1977 in London to Ghanaian parents who moved to the UK to work for the NHS. She studied art at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design but disliked the teaching, so she transferred to Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall, where she graduated in 2000. Following this, she studied for a master’s degree at the Royal Academy Schools, which she achieved in 2003.
Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), a Nigerian art critic, gave Yiadom-Boakye her big break by exhibiting her work at Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. The museum is devoted to artists of African descent. In 2013, Yiadom-Boakye received a nomination for the Turner Prize, along with Laure Prouvost, who won; Tino Sehgal; and David Shrigley. Yiadom-Boakye received the nomination for her portrait paintings of imaginary subjects at her first solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London.
In 2019, Yiadom-Boakye was featured on Powerlist’s top 100 influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the United Kingdom. The following year, she reached number 9 on the list, below the likes of the grime artist Stormzy and Jacky Wright, the vice president of Microsoft US. Although she earned the accolade for her artwork, Yiadom-Boakye describes herself as a writer of short stories and poems, yet she continues to excel at painting. In 2018, she became the first woman of colour awarded the Carnegie Prize for art.
Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are predominantly figurative, featuring imaginary Black subjects in front of ambiguous backgrounds of monochromatic dark hues. She does not use models but often takes inspiration from scrapbooks and magazines or relies on her imagination. The figures tend to have contemplative facial expressions and relaxed postures, to which many viewers may relate. The more curious may wonder what the people are thinking, but no explanation is forthcoming.
In an interview, Yiadom-Boakye stated, “People ask me, ‘Who are they, where are they?’ What they should be asking is ‘what’ are they?” She deliberately makes her figures hard to place in time and location, giving them a sense of timelessness. The clothing rarely features anything cultural or time-specific, and Yiadom-Boakye prefers to paint her figures without shoes to avoid tying them to a particular era. By avoiding this, Yiadom-Boakye allows people to relate to the paintings regardless of their backgrounds.
Given Yiadom-Boakye’s Ghanaian ancestry, it is no surprise that she only paints Black figures. She had no ulterior motive for this, but when questioned, explained that she wants Black society to “exist unto itself” rather than in relation to White people and racial hardships. “I’ve never felt the need to explain its presence in the work any more than I’ve felt the need to explain my presence in the world.”
Rather than taking inspiration from other visual artists, Yiadom-Boakye turns to music and literature. Tate Britain includes several examples of literature and songs that have influenced Yiadom-Boakye, including Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome by Oscar Wilde. Her favourite music artists include Prince, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, James Brown and John Coltrane.
Listening to jazz music inspires Yiadom-Boakye to improvise, as many musicians do, but to also follow a plan. Rather than painstakingly agonising over elements of a painting that is not going right, Yiadom-Boakye changes track and creates something new. Using her imagination rather than drawing from life allows her to alter things during the painting process. An image of two figures may become one, and an outdoor setting may be moved inside.
Authors and literature do not necessarily inspire Yiadom-Boakye’s visual artwork but influence her choice of titles. During an interview with American curator Antwaun Sargent, Yiadom-Boakye revealed, “There were certain references from literature that stuck with me, and made me think differently about language in relation to imagery. So the titles have never been descriptive; they’re never explanations of the paintings – they’re always another brush mark, a part of the painting, rather than a description of it.” While painting, a certain image, shade of colour, facial expression and so forth often triggers a remembered phrase or book title, which Yiadom-Boakye uses or adapts for the title.
The subtitle for the exhibition at Tate Britain also has no bearing on the artwork. Fly In League With The Night is a phrase from a poem by Yiadom-Boakye. It is quoted on the wall outside the entrance:
At Ease As The Day Breaks Beside Its Erasure
And At Pains To Temper The Light
At Liberty Like The Owl When The Need Comes Knocking
To Fly In League With The Night
Yiadom-Boakye prefers to focus on fictional people and settings because it gives her more control over the outcome. Art schools teach students to draw from life, but Yiadom-Boakye struggled to capture the essence of the models. Whilst paintings of her friends and family look accurate, they fail to reveal the individuals’ personalities. Using her imagination, Yiadom-Boakye is not under pressure to depict exact likenesses and personas. A relaxed figure may become pensive during the painting process, yet this does not ruin the portrait because there is no “right” way to portray imaginary people.
“Although they are not real I think of them as people known to me. They are imbued with a power of their own; they have a resonance – something emphatic and other-worldly. I admire them for their strength, their moral fibre. If they are pathetic, they don’t survive; if I feel sorry for someone, I get rid of them. I don’t like to paint victims.”
Photographs and magazines often inspire Yiadom-Boakye’s work, but she never paints from only one image. By keeping a scrapbook, Yiadom-Boakye combines elements in her artwork, almost like a collage, to create imaginary scenes. Whilst her figures are recognisably human, she does not paint famous faces or give away a person’s station in life. She wants Black people to exist without labels and without being compared to White people. Racial relations of the past, particularly in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, imply “you’re a goddess or a slave”, whereas most people are neither.
The way the paintings hang at an exhibition is another important factor of Yiadom-Boakye’s work. She worked with Tate Britain to decide where and how to display each image. Yiadom-Boakye paints with the canvas at eye level, so it makes sense to hang them at the same height. In some instances, the figures look directly at the viewer. In others, they peer at the painting next to them or across the room. Although each painting is an individual work of art, placing them next to or in the same room as other examples alters people’s interpretations.
Many of Yiadom-Boakye’s earlier works feature her signature dark colour palette, which evokes a sense of stillness. The plain backgrounds draw attention to the ahistorical fictional characters, who often appear alone on the canvas. In more recent works, Yiadom-Boakye has introduced more than one character into her imaginary scenes and has started to experiment with colour.
Speaking to The Guardian, Yiadom-Boakye said, “In the last few years, I’ve become obsessed with colour, too. My pictures used to be very dark, but now I’m putting in vivid reds and greens.” Yiadom-Boakye stuck to dark colours for so long because she felt confident in her ability to use them in her paintings. Introducing colour was initially a step out of her comfort zone, but now it is something she embraces.
Yiadom-Boakye has not hung her paintings chronologically, so each room has a mix of old and new artworks. Rather than separating the dark from the colourful styles, she encourages them to speak to each other through careful placing in the gallery. Instead of learning about the artist, visitors attend the exhibition to appreciate the paintings and Yiadom-Boakye’s artistic skills.
Although Yiadom-Boakye is a relatively new artist, she has inspired some artistic circles. In 2020, the Yale Center for British Art celebrated Women’s History Month, which featured a portrait of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye by the American artist Kehinde Wiley. Originally painted in 2017, the gallery installed it in place of a Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Lord Pulteney (1729-1805), who made his fortune in the Caribbean using slave labour. Wiley’s painting depicts Yiadom-Boakye in the guise of a rich, landowning, eighteenth-century white man. The artist aimed to subvert the norms of Western portraiture by placing Black figures in historical spaces.
Wiley’s painting differs from the way Yiadom-Boakye depicts Black figures. Rather than producing ahistorical portraits, he has deliberately placed Yiadom-Boakye in a time and place where it would have been impossible for a Black person to be a rich landowner. Wiley is drawing attention to the inequalities of the past and making people aware that the people depicted by famous artists of the past achieved their status by means that would be unacceptable in the 21st century.
Yiadom-Boakye, on the other hand, does not paint to make people question the past or draw attention to inequalities. She does not want to focus on how Black people were deemed different from White people. Instead, Yiadom-Boakye moves the attention away from racism and paints how she sees Black people: ordinary individuals.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night is open until 26th February 2023 at Tate Britain. Tickets cost £16. Concessions are available.