Composites and riddles: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Tate Britain

One advantage of lockdown has been the profuse availability of online lectures about art. One image from a lecture I attended recently has burned itself, like hot tar, into my imagination. It is the tiny and apparently tangential detail in a painting of 1755 by John Wootton: “View from Caenwood House over London”. The landscape features people walking on the terrace of Kenwood House, with London spread out beyond. A woman is poking what at first sight appears to be a pet with a long stick, only it’s not a pet, it’s a small black child, who is attached, like the dog next to it, to its owner. This is how art historian Leslie Primo introduced an illuminating lecture on art and the abolition of the slave trade.

Coming slowly out of lockdown we have the chance to view art in almost empty galleries, the pleasure of being able to look at a painting unhindered. Economically unsustainable, I am sure, but I shall enjoy it while it lasts. I have long believed that galleries sell too many tickets to “blockbuster” exhibitions, although it is easy to understand why.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a British painter of Ghanain background. Fly In League With The Night, her monumental exhibition of dozens of portraits, spans the two decades of her career thus far. In the extensive white galleries of Tate Britain’s special exhibition space both the paintings and the visitors are socially distanced, giving us and them space to breathe.

Most of Yiadom’s characters are ageless or relatively youthful, with similar dark chocolate coloured skin.They project confidence, humour, sometimes defiance.Almost all are clearly male or female; several of the men are wearing pinkish collar ruffs, hinting at 16th century portraits – or are they dancers or performers? The almost life-size characters on the walls could perhaps be the friends, family and acquaintances of the artist, but she tells us that they are not real but imagined. Despite a lack of clues or details, each one comes across strongly, emotions and preoccupations deftly conveyed. Each seems complete and credible. Are these people she has met or seen somewhere, lodged in her memory? Like fictional characters in novels do they fuse attributes, some real, some imagined? Are they projections of her own emotions and inner world? Are they self-portraits, showing some aspect or split second of the artist’s personality, inner world, memory and history?

Yiadom-Boakye says herself that they are “composites, ciphers, riddles”. Some of these people are self-absorbed, engaged in conversation; others engage the viewer directly or seem to step or reach beyond the canvas. They may be caught unawares in closeup in some activity. They may be walking, conversing, or are deep in thought. We search the paintings looking for hints of the larger story; we want to get to know each of these people better.While the palette for each picture is often uniformly dark, many have areas or highlights of white. White is always a decision: bright flashes of unpainted canvas, a tiny highlight on a chin or elbow, the white of an eye, stark teeth, a shirt, underpants -- quite often, which seems odd these days, a cigarette.

The titles of the pictures are like Zen koans, enigmatic and intriguing. They are, says Yiadom-Boakye, who is also a poet, “an extra brush stroke…. integral to each work but not an explanation or description.” There are no captions. I am always relieved when paintings do not have captions because when they do, I want to ignore them, perhaps at all and certainly before I have looked at the painting. But I am rarely able to resist their pull. My tussle with the caption, especially when it not only gives historical context but interprets the painting, becomes a distracting feature of gallery visits.

At the National Gallery the day before my visit to Tate Britain, there are tourists, flitting past me in a strange dipping motion – up to photograph the painting, then down to the side, to capture the caption. I suppose they may be looking at those pictures back in their hotel room or when they get home, but I am bemused. After months of looking online at paintings or in Zoom lectures, I am relishing being just a metre away from the vibrancy of the actual colours, the texture of paint, brushstroke and canvas. Real paintings help me to breathe properly – studying paintings online can be illuminating but does not have the same healing effect.

In The Generosity, a pair of men in white undershorts are reaching down to their ankles, putting on or taking off their white socks; one is looking at his feet, the other looks at us, as if surprised to be caught in this fleeting, private moment of camaraderie, fraternity. In No Objection to Noises a woman wearing glasses adjusts a cross on a neck chain. In A Bounty Left Unpaid, a man strides purposefully past us toward the right, out of the painting. In No Need of Speech, two men are shown squatting against a white background, completely absorbed in one another. In Condor and the Mole, two small girls play on the beach. In Highriser, a slim man in blue trousers, half-smiling with clear bright eyes, looks and walks straight at us, his left hand in an open gesture of welcome or beckoning.

All art is political, sometimes as much as in what is ignored, left out or unsaid as in what is included. Perhaps, as in the Wootton picture mentioned above, through some casual detail. Although a painting may not show it, there is always a context, a gestalt field for the painting. This exhibition cannot be seen outside the context of Black Lives Matter, live debates about the Windrush scandal and the legacy of the slave trade -- even if it would evidently be a surprise to any of the characters on the walls of this exhibition to think that their lives did not matter. They exude dignity and self-composure; they embody Yiadom-Boakye’s statement that “blackness has never been other to me”.

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