Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night at Tate Britain
Fly in League with the Night is the first exhibition to show an in depth, mid-career review of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work. Born in 1977 to Ghanian parents, she is the first British black woman to have a solo show at Tate Britain. It includes compositions from her graduation from Royal Academy schools in 2003 up until the present.
The exhibition eschews tradition in the sense that it is not ordered chronologically and dispenses with any description of the paintings, aside from title, date and materials. They are all, however, portraits in oil on canvas or linen – a traditional medium with a nod to the pieces in the gallery’s permanent collection. As in the work of the traditional masters, many subjects are featured with animals, or with plumage in their hat or ruffs around their necks.
Rather than taken from life, though, these subjects are plucked from the artist’s imagination. She describes them as “composites, ciphers, riddles. Of the world but only partially concerned with it.” There is a dreamlike quality that can turn from intriguing to haunting to unsettling. First (2003) feels like being plunged into a narrative in a language that the writer has invented. You don’t know who the person is, what they’re doing or thinking, or why. Nothing is explained in the composition or title: it’s left to the viewer’s imagination.
The oil is applied to canvas (or linen, where the grain of the fabric gleams charmingly through the paint) with a bold and frank hand; the subjects’ backgrounds are suggested rather than explicit. A particular highlight is the mesmerising The Counter (2010): rendered in grey and taupe, a young man is perched on rocks that seem almost to cascade like a waterfall, looking out over what could be a desert or a sea, his skin luminous against the muted background.
There are recurring motifs of foxes (Black Allegiance to the Cunning shows a man’s expression mirroring the seemingly giggling fox at his feet), birds, theatre and dance. Colours are mainly muted and dark, sometimes jewel-toned, a few lighter. Most subjects display a luxuriant languor, immersed in their worlds of performance, looking through binoculars, smoking, talking to each other, or attending to whatever it is they are doing. Some have a delicate flamboyance, others appear contemplative, sometimes performing but for themselves, rather than an audience. Yiadom-Boakye captures expression and gesture particularly well, though there is an enigmatic inscrutability suffusing the work. The characters may or may not engage with the viewer’s gaze – it’s their world, you’ve just been allowed a glimpse.
Something sombre, contemplative and just a little bit uncanny runs through the exhibition. Not all of the portraits are accomplished – some of the group ones don’t feel necessary or purposeful – but it is a distinctive, memorable world from a bold and unique perspective.
Photos: Erol Birsen
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night is at Tate Britain from 2nd December until 9th May 2021. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.