Before the second lockdown Toni Roberts saw Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s show Fly in League with the Night at Tate Britain. Here, she recalls vibrant paintings alive with stories, brilliant studies of people, and human relationships that transcend the canvas’ edges.
As you walk through the entrance leading to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition Fly in League with the Night at Tate Britain, you are immediately confronted with a huge, blown up image of the artist’s painting A Passion Like No Other (2012). The figure looks out from a striking green backdrop, his docile eyes meeting yours. Although the size of the image leaves you standing below the figure’s eyeline, he still surveys you. The energy of the thick brushstrokes is as lively as the music playing in the background. But amid this buoyant movement the figure remains still. The playlist, chosen by Yiadom-Boakye herself, features music as far ranging as jazz, classical, hip-hop and rap performed by artists such as Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Solange. The music enhances the experience, creating atmosphere. It is an event. I watch as a woman dances, unashamed and instinctive. It is an introduction to the artist’s work that goes beyond words.
A quote on the wall outside provides the inspiration for the title of this exhibition. It was written by the artist and reads:
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
– Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
And now you enter.
Walking through this exhibition is like looking into the windows of imagined lives. Andrea Schlieker and Isabella Maidment, along with the input of the artist, have curated an experience that ignites the imagination. The exhibition does not follow a chronology. Instead, paintings are placed so that they communicate with their neighbours in fascinating ways. The paintings Just Above The Cloud (2014) and To Tell Them Where It’s Got To (2013) hang side-by-side on the gallery wall. The first depicts the head and shoulders of a man looking down at the ground. His expression appears contemplative or perhaps tired. The second shows a woman, also with her head taking up much of the frame, similarly looking down and slightly away to the right. They are positioned so that they face each other (the man on the left, the woman on the right) and there is a sense that something has gone on between them. They are unable to look each other in the eye as though they are embarrassed or slightly sad. There is so much that is being said between them through avoidance. It’s mesmerising.
Another subtle but nonetheless powerful act of communication occurs between the two men lighting their cigarettes in Coagulant Dangers (2018) and the single occupant of In The Ventricular (2018). The lone figure looks longingly across the room at the other two as though he yearns to be included. The depth of feeling is very relatable. Because of the positioning of these paintings, I believe and feel that these subjects occupy and live in the same world, as though the man in In The Ventricular could stand up and walk into the other painting. I was struck by that same impression in the first room where I imagined the occupants of the paintings were a family with each member playing a trope: the disapproving father, the eccentric uncle, the chilled out, happy-go-lucky son.
The muted and earthy tones of brown, grey, beige and black feature heavily in Yiadom-Boakye’s work, especially her earlier paintings, that are reminiscent of the Spanish romantic artist Francisco de Goya. The result is that the subjects of these paintings emerge steadily from the darkness, as in Nightingale (2009) in which the whiteness of a piece of paper held by the figure stands out against the ample use of browns and blacks. However, in later work you can see the introduction of bolder colours: yellows, oranges, greens, pinks, and lighter blues. The influence of impressionist painters, such as Cézanne and Manet, is evident in the use of colour and the layered application of thin paint on the canvas. A prime example of this is the use of greens, yellows, and earthy reds in Afterward (2019), which seems to be a clear nod to Cézanne and his still-life paintings. This is reinforced by the bowl of fruit that sits atop the table. Another example of the artist using a wider colour palette appears in the depiction of a dancer in Daydreaming Of Devils (2016). The yellows and greens give vibrancy to the painting, creating an almost carnivalesque quality to the image of a dancer draped in a fox scarf as he poses with one foot on pointe.
Looking around the rooms, I have the impression that I know some of the faces in these paintings. There is a familiarity to them that I cannot pinpoint exactly. Perhaps they remind me of people I have seen before. Yet, extraordinarily, Yiadom-Boakye does not paint real people as is traditional with portraiture. Instead, her figures are imagined amalgamations of found images and imagination. She works from sources such as family photographs, literature, memory, scrapbooks with collections of magazine and newspaper images, and paintings by old masters such as John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert. The focus is on the painting, the use of colour, light and composition rather than the people they depict. Yiadom-Boakye has said of her work: ‘I was always more interested in the painting than I was in the people.’ I find this surprising because everywhere I look around the gallery, I see stories and relationships. This is very true of the group paintings of young men, such as Amaranthine (2018) and Complication (2013) in which there is a strong feeling of friendship, brotherhood and camaraderie that appears integral to the spirit of the paintings.
I find that there is generally a temperament of either quiet stillness and thought or a theatricality and engagement with the viewer. The first type of painting would be 6pm Madeira (2011) in which a woman sits on a futon chair gazing out meditatively, or Citrine By The Ounce (2014), which shows a man face on with eyes lowered. He could be sombre or in peaceful sleep. Yiadom-Boakye has created various paintings showing dancers; yet these do not necessarily corelate to a sense of theatricality and performance in the work. A Concentration (2018) for example, which, with its use of whites, beige hues and impression of movement is highly reminiscent of the work of Edgar Degas and, as the title suggests, is a very quiet and concentrated image. On the other hand, Confidences (2010) is compositionally quiet and still (two boys lean against a wall), but their postures and expressions make the image much more active. One boy turns to the other, speaking in his ear and sharing secret information. The other teases you with a glance as if to say “I know something you don’t.” He invites your curiosity while making it clear the knowledge is private. It is subtle in its presentation.
One piece that is overtly performative, and certainly uncharacteristically so, is the loud and garish First (2003). First is bold; it’s in-your-face; it’s exhibitionist with a hint of sleaze. The thick brushstrokes distort the face, giving it a grotesquely cartoonish look. One wide stroke gives him a sexually inviting smile. This air of sexuality is emphasised by the open, bright red robe that reveals his bare chest and small, bulging pants. His gaze at once focuses on you and looks beyond you. I imagine him entertaining a woman at night. His stature, with legs parted, one hand on his chest, the other fingering the tie of his robe, exudes sexual confidence. This painting was inspired by John Singer Sargent’s Dr Pozzi at Home (1881) and appeared in the artist’s Royal Academy graduation show. The similarities between the paintings are clear: Yiadom-Boakye has imitated the posture and hand positions of Singer Sargent’s Dr Pozzi, and both wear a similar red robe. Yet, the impression of Singer Sargent’s Dr is that of modesty, elegance and intellect. I wonder if Yiadom-Boakye is exploring or presenting the stereotypes surrounding the masculinity and sexuality of black men. This style of painting is characteristic of her early work and does not reappear later on.
For me, this exhibition highlights discovery and imagination. You are a spectator and voyeur, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes not. The fact that explanatory labels are deliberately absent forces the viewer to engage with the work instinctively and take from the paintings what they will without outside influence. Art is always subjective and by asking the viewer to make their own conclusions, Yiadom-Boakye gives agency to the individual and embraces the nuance of personal experience. It is clear through her paintings that Yiadom-Boakye is a writer. Apart from the poetic titles of her works, which she describes as “an extra brushstroke”, each piece has such a strong narrative. This exhibition is comprised of various conversations and stories that flow from room to room. It is enchanting, timeless and holds both social and personal significance.
Fly in League with the Night isn’t so much about placing black people in the canon as it is about saying that we’ve always been here, we’ve always existed, self-sufficient, outside of nightmares and imaginations, pre- and post “discovery”, and in no way defined or limited by who sees us.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Fly in League with the Night will be showing at Tate Britain until 31 May, once lockdown restrictions have been lifted (Tate Britain is currently closed because of the pandemic).
Feature image is from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s A Passion Like No Other, (2012). Collection Lonti Ebers © Courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.