By Brooklyn Rue
Lynnette Yiadom-Boakye uses suggestive, imprecise brushstrokes to create her expressive portraits, which are usually of Black men and women in unclear time periods and settings. She works with oil paint, which she told Dodie Kazanjian in an interview with Vogue she likes for its dirtiness and messiness as well as the fact that it is “fleshy and unpredictable — it has a kind of human quality to it.”
Yiadom-Boakye’s work is unique in that she paints only fictitious figures, conceived from her imagination or from found images she collects from scrapbooks, magazine clippings, drawings, and other source materials, which are usually strewn about her studio in London. Her subjects most often do not wear shoes — this would give away their placement in time — and are often set against dark backgrounds. Yiadom-Boakye does not use black pigment for her work so as not to dull or muddy her figures against their muted backgrounds, but instead uses a mixture of brown and blue to bring the imagined characters to life. In another interview with Nadie Rubin Nathan from New York Times, Yiadom-Boakye described her creations as “suggestions of people” who “don’t share our concerns or anxieties” and exist “somewhere else altogether.”
The role of fiction at the heart of Yiadom-Boakye’s work is also evident in the artist’s writing. She writes satirical poems and short stories, many of which have been published in her museum catalogs. Too, the artist is intentional about blending these two mediums, as the titles of many of her works are often themselves poetic.
When Yiadom-Boakye paints, she works quickly — she does not use preliminary sketches but rather jumps directly into putting paint on the canvas and most often her paintings are completed within a day. Once the paintings are ready to be displayed — the artist has numerous works shown in collections around the world, including at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., and the Tate Gallery in London — she usually requests that her paintings hang as low as possible so that the viewer can more actively engage with them. This fits consistently with the themes of Yiadom-Boakye’s work, which is intentionally ambiguous so that the life of the imagined subjects can be envisioned and interpreted by the viewer.
The issues of identity and representation so prominent in Yiadom-Boakye’s work, which consists mostly of portraits of Black men and women, are also deeply relevant to the artist’s own life. Born in London in 1977 to two Ghanaian immigrant parents, Yiadom-Boakye was a Black woman in a mostly white society. In her interview with Vogue, the artist said her experiences in school were mostly positive, but “there were a lot of instances where you came to understand that people saw you differently.” She felt she was judged by some of her peers, and sometimes singled out by other young Black women for her dark complexion. For these reasons, Yiadom-Boakye felt she had to work even harder to excel and some of the motivation of her work became to normalize the representation of Black people in art.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has an upcoming exhibition at Tate Britain, 18 November 2020 to 9 May 2021, bringing together more than 80 works in the most extensive survey of the artist’s career to date. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night is curated by Andrea Schlieker, Director of Exhibitions and Displays, Tate Britain and Isabella Maidment, Curator of Contemporary British Art with Aïcha Mehrez, Assistant Curator, Contemporary British Art. The exhibition is organised by Tate Britain in collaboration with Moderna Museet, Stockholm, KunstsammlungNordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, and Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’ArtModerne Grand-Duc Jean.