Fly in League with the Night: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
by Madeline DeFilippis | 19 December 2020
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s first major survey exhibition awaits behind closed doors – before we enter, Tate Britain sets the tone. Walking around the anteroom, various text plates explain how Yiadom-Boakye is different to most contemporary artists. Despite initially learning to paint from life, she now paints from her imagination, something that the exhibition credits her talents both as an artist and a writer. Indeed, the name of the exhibition comes from Yiadom-Boakye’s own poetry:
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.
She views painting as communication, and her writing becomes a secondary quality of her visual work, both as inspiration and endnote. Sometimes her writing informs her painting, and other times her titles bookend the story she tells through her figures. This gives her work what the curators call a ‘timeless’ quality – but these figures take on their own identities and characteristics for each viewer. One figure lives in the 1920s, another looks like an embodiment of the 1960s. It’s a totally subjective experience and entirely more enjoyable for that reason. It also reflects the ways in which history informs Yiadom-Boakye’s practice: she claims that the history of painting is crucial, as there is much to be learned from previous artists.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Black Allegiance To The Cunning, 2018
© Sheldon Inwentash and Lynn Factor
The black experience is a central thread throughout the exhibition, first introduced in the anteroom. Yiadom-Boakye states that ‘blackness has never been other to me’, and rather than ‘placing’ Black figures into the canon, she is interested in asserting that they ‘have always been here’. She refuses to be defined by an understanding of blackness as ‘other’, rather her ‘invented realm’ is a space in which these figures are allowed to exist.
The anteroom also introduces the playlist, available on Tate’s Spotify account under the name ‘The Sound of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’. It was created in order to immerse the audience in the ‘private worlds’ which her figures inhabit. From Jazz icon Miles Davis, pianist Bill Evans, pop star Prince, Motown legend Stevie Wonder, and singers Nina Simone and Solange (among many others), this playlist permeates the entirety of the exhibition. The ‘mood’ of the paintings and the sounds of decades of Black music coalesce to give a tangible dimension to Yiadom-Boakye’s world.
The exhibition is a curatorial feat, with paintings loaned from the Pinault Collection, Arts Council England, Fondation Louis Vuitton and galleries Jack Shainman and Corvi-Mora among others. Many works look as though they’ve just left the artist’s studio, without frames that are so often relied upon to legitimise a painting. Some are small, up-close portraits, while others are large full-figure canvases which take up whole walls. Figures are set against unidentifiable backgrounds and do not follow a chronological thread from the artist’s early works in 2003 to ones creates during the 2020 pandemic. A personal favourite of mine was Daydreaming of Devils (2016), which depicts a figure standing in a dancer’s pose, almost nude except for his underwear and a fox scarf around his neck. The colours beautifully outline the figure, enhancing his strength and poise as he looks away from the viewer. Quite a few of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings have animals in them, including a small yellow bird and a fox. What are they doing there, if not to interrupt our daydreaming and force us to ask, ‘What do they mean?’ I also thoroughly enjoyed Yiadom-Boakye’s female figures. Some, like Penny for Them (2014) Later or Louder or Softer or Sooner (2013) were in profile and captured the figures in moments of pensiveness or in quiet glee. The exhibition brims with intense emotion, with each painting bringing a new reaction from both the painted figure and the viewer.
Fly in League with Night: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is open at Tate Britain until 9 May 2021.