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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye / Text Jareh Das

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue

“…[I]t is far more effective to let the paintings speak for themselves… It’s all there, thoughts about race, masculinity, femininity, what it is to be human and in the world alongside everyone else. But it is complex, joyful, miserable, infuriating, and overwhelming – so not easily put into words. That is why it is painted. The marks, the lights, the dark, the colour, the composition, the form, the scale: all of these things take on meanings to me, like a language to speak. And beauty is there too, unabashed and brazen.”

– Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

all images ©Lynette-Yiadom Boakye / Courtesy Ghana pavilion 

British and Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye expertly uses oil to expertly render fictional paintings of individuals who cannot be ascribed to a fixed time or place. The black figure surrounded by muted hues takes centre stage in a depiction that moves beyond portraiture, which by definition is a representation of a particular person thus framing and contextualising the sitter. A graduate of both Falmouth College of Arts and the Royal Academy Schools, Yiadom-Boakye disturbs this definition of portraiture as her works are born from imaginative spaces and multiple sources. In a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist to coincide with her exhibition Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk at Serpentine London (2 June – 13 September 201), she speaks of never really arriving at a set moment of deciding to become a painter as she wrote stories, read a lot and made things from a young age. Perhaps this early literary and creating period informed the potential of limitless possibilities offered by depicting figures which that are further complicated by the suggestive titles she gives to each work thus allowing for even more ambiguity.

Her paintings take one day to complete working with oils working largely on linen which she then primes with rabbit-skin glue and builds up with layer upon layer of colour, never once using black rather opting for browns mixed with blue and orange to render flesh tones.
On giving titles to her works, she explains: ‘It is never direct for me with the titles of the paintings. I derive titles often from something so far removed from the image, or so arbitrary, that it’s more about the fact that I like words and I like images, but I don’t necessarily know how to put them together.’ For her lauded solo exhibition at the New Museum titled Under Song for Cipher (3 March – 3 September 2017), Yiadom Boakye presented a new body of work in her now signatory style (bold brushstrokes produced at speed, figures that appear nonchalant, elegant, otherworldly and so on) whilst leaving it up to the viewer to ascribe their own narratives and interpretations to who and what they are seeing. Tie The Temptress To The Trojan (2016) a stunning portrait of a shirtless man giving directly at the viewer as he lies on a bed, but the title speaking of the temptress ‘Helen of Troy,’ who was accused of leading the great men of the day astray, and set the Near East on fire. This young man in this suggestive pose is perhaps cautionary to the ills of temptation (my interpretation) and contemplating his next encounter. Environments and the specific instructions for hanging create an intimate space for experiencing

her paintings. At the New Museum walls were painted a deep read so that they blended even further to the background.

For the recent 57th Carnegie International, thirteen oil paintings collectively titled A Light for the Louder Grace created an arresting presentation of life-sized (or larger) figures hung low to actively engage with the gaze of the viewer and against placed on walls painted a bright vanilla a. This series depicted individuals in contemplative poses often averting their gaze away from the viewer perhaps deep in thought. Even when more figures are depicted in the same frame, they appear emotionally disconnected from each other. In some works, characters are relatively animated and deeply engaged signalling a new development for the artist as some of them face each other, gesturing, smoking, and expressing emotion in their eyes. Brushstrokes, intimacies and personas are expressive but void of time-bound details.

Accolades have come in waves in recent years for Yiadom Boakye’s including a Turner Prize nomination for her solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London in 2013, the Pinchuk Foundation Future Generation Prize in 2010, and most recently, she was the recipient of the Carnegie Prize 2018 honouring top paintings of the year. Yiadom-Boakye’s work eludes easy categorization and has beautifully stated in an interview with

Jamie Stevens (Chisenhale Gallery website) that: “…[I]t is far more effective to let the paintings speak for themselves… It’s all there, thoughts about race, masculinity, femininity, what it is to be human and in the world alongside everyone else. But it is complex, joyful, miserable, infuriating, and overwhelming – so not easily put into words. That is why it is painted. The marks, the lights, the dark, the colour, the composition, the form, the scale: all of these things take on meanings to me, like a language to speak.
And beauty is there too, unabashed and brazen.”

Yiadom-Boakye is one of the participating artists for the national Pavilion of Ghana at the 58th International Venice Biennale titled Ghana Freedom, curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim in space designed by David Adjaye alongside artists Felicia Abban, John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama and Selasi Awusi Sosu. Titled ‘Ghana Freedom’, after the song composed by E.T. Mensah on the eve of the birth of the new nation in 1957 which examines the legacies and trajectories of that freedom by six artists, across three generations, rooted both in Ghana and its Diasporas.

Together with renowned photographer Felicia Abban, she will explore this theme by through both representation and figuration that has become central to her practice. Recent solo museum shows include the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2017); Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland (2016); Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (2015); and Serpentine Gallery, London (2015). She was included in the 57th edition of the Carnegie International (2018) at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, winning the Carnegie Prize. Other recent group exhibitions include The British Art Show 8, traveling to four venues between 2015 and 2017; Sharjah Biennial 12: The past, the present, and the possible (2015); The Encyclopedic Palace, 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (2013); The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (2012); and the 11th Lyon Biennial of Contemporary Art, Lyon, France (2012).

Jareh Das
may 2019