In December, we were lucky enough to visit Yiadom-Boakye’s show “Fly in League With the Night” at Tate Britain. Our friends at Matrons & Mistresses invited us to share our thoughts on the exhibition. Read our reflections below.
By Tara Advaney
In life (and in art), we are always searching for points of reference. Yiadom-Boakye’s artistic genius lies in her deliberate refusal to give in to this viewer’s need for sense and explanation.
As you approach Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition, “Fly in League With the Night”, you’re led through the central hall of Tate Britain. The main artery of the museum is currently filled with school photos of young British children, smiling at the yearbook photographer in the awkward way 7-year-olds tend to. Leaving no inch of Tate Britain’s wall untouched, the set of works are a new series by Steve McQueen.
For the exhibition “Year 3″, McQueen invited Year 3 pupils in London to be photographed by a team of Tate photographers. These class photos are collected into a single large-scale installation, capturing thousands of students in a milestone year in their development. There’s something wonderfully comforting about these photographs, the way in which McQueen has been able to capture each moment in these children’s lives and bundle them into a photograph that cannot be altered. As a clear reference to 2020, it shows the London of today in a life-sized yearbook.
So you can imagine my frustration—for the lack of a better word—to find that this conclusive “capture” is not at all present in Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition. Her deliberate efforts to push the boundaries of enigmatism in her subjects and the spaces they inhibit was, at first, a shock after the certainty of McQueen’s school children. Yet once you understand Yiadom-Boakye’s purpose in her clouding of her paintings, her enigmatic characters are brought to life even more than any McQueen child, almost stepping out of the paintings and inviting you to dance along with them.
Before we delve too much into the exhibition, let us tell you a little more about Yiadom-Boakye. Born and bred in London in 1977, Yiadom-Boakye has become a British icon in her ability to turn her back on the idea of a fixed narrative in her portraits. As an ode to her Ghanian roots, the artist focuses solely on Black subjects. In fact, she is the first British black woman to have a solo show at Tate Britain, which—although it being far too late on the timeline of landmarks in contemporary art—feels extremely relevant in light of Yiadom-Boakye’s desire to call attention to a long history of erasure of Black subjects in traditional portrait paintings. Yes, Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are celebrations of her own background.
Yet, this may lead to the assumption that these subjects are direct representations of this background: friends, family, her nearest and dearest. Her subjects, however, are pure products of her imagination. Yiadom-Boakye’s figures exist “outside of a specific time or place.” They’re “not real people—she creates them from found images and her own imagination” (Source: Tate). Tracing the evolution of imagination in her life, Yiadom-Boakye cites the role of her brothers. “I guess I blame my family because growing up my brothers would play with me and they would pretend my toy animals could speak. So I grew up thinking that everything could speak” (Source: Fad Magazine). And so they do.
This layer of imagination—something that’s often only attainable through painting—is what holds your attention in “Fly in League With the Night”. Her subjects seem to tease you; drawing viewers in with their intense gaze and often cheeky expressions. Unlike McQueen’s photographs, you’ll find yourself itching for an explanation: “Who are they? What are they looking at? What sounds do they hear or music are they dancing to?”
This sensation feels particularly sharp in the two works you’ll spot about halfway through the exhibition. In an almost diptych-like placement, two portraits hang in conversation with each other. The two white-shirted males titled “Wrist Action” and “Bound Over to Keep the Faith” prove meaning in Yiadom-Boakye’s work is far from being served on a silver platter. They’re keenly observant of the viewer, contemptuously snickering at you for not understanding what’s really going on. There exist few hints beyond a pink glove and a rope around the waist. Perhaps an allusion to the infamous gloves that didn’t fit O.J. Simpson during his murder trial in 1995, or a nod to the 1994 Brit Pop hit “Pink Glove” by Pulp… Lynette offers little confirmation of either. The best part of the work ends up being the subject’s glinty eyes, offering at least one conclusive element: that we won’t ever be able to answer these questions.
Another one that caught my eye was her stunning oil on linen work, “Black Allegiance to the Cunning”, where a young, gleeful male sits perched on a stool, a calm yet territorial fox curled around his ankles. Aside from the artist’s obvious fascination with foxes and minks, this one captured our attention due to its lack of reference points. The man wears no shoes, a deliberate strategy used by the artist to strip her paintings of style or fashion that alludes to a specific period. The man’s fingers also offer more than what meets the eye; is he holding an invisible cigarette? Should there be something dangling from between his fingers that Yiadom-Boakye has purposefully kept from the viewer? While tickling your visual senses, Tate Britain offers another form of stimulation: tune in your aural senses by checking out the Spotify playlist “The Sound of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye,” curated by Tate. Don’t feel obliged to match your viewing time to that of the playlist (which spans almost 7 hours). Instead, let it offer another route to make at least a bit more sense of the artist’s “composites, ciphers, riddles,” as she puts it.
And don’t hope to gain much clarity from her titles, as they are as enigmatic as the incendiary looks you receive from her characters. For example, a large-scale canvas of two young girls sauntering peacefully on a beach holds the title “Condor and the Mole”.
Another oil paint on linen shows a character sprawled on the floor gazing up in conversation with another figure, and has the oh-so-clear title of “To Improvise a Mountain”. And so the enigma of Lynette continues! In life (and in art), we are always searching for points of reference. Yiadom-Boakye’s artistic genius lies in her deliberate refusal to give in to this viewer’s need for sense and explanation. 2020 has taught us all to find survival in a sea of ambiguity, and Yiadom-Boakye’s dark paintings, infused with the occasional emerald and sapphire, give us the space to exercise that muscle. And while you will not be served the direct 2020 references of Nike Air sneakers or Adidas Stan Smiths, like in Steve McQueen’s school photographs, there is a lot of merit in leaving an art exhibition with more questions than you came with. Because perhaps the pink glove will serve as the impetus of your next lockdown inspiration, or the invisible shoe will cause a newfound historical fascination of a bygone decade. It provides the space for “these paintings to be paintings in the most physical sense . . . to let the paint to do the talking”, as put by the artist. It’s the space between the precision—the exact date of when the vaccine will be rolled out, the percentage points of cases in any given space—that gives us the real hope we need in today’s day and age. The type of hope that only art can offer.
- Until 9 May 2021
- Tate Britain, Millbank, London