How important is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's work?

Retrospective of the Afro-Caribbean artist helps to understand how the concept of white hegemony is directly linked to the history of painting

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Black Allegiance To The Cunning, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Understanding the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boaky it is fundamental to understand how a global movement for equality needs to go hand in hand with the production of a new global ethics based on the proposal of a new aesthetic. The first African-Caribbean artist to have a solo exhibition at the Tate and to be nominated for the Turner Prize in the country, Yiadom-Boaky is a fundamental artist for the movement that some call the “Renaissance of black painting”, which goes beyond, it is worth noting , the replacement of white protagonists by black subjects in painting. Fly in League with the Night meets, until the 26th of February, at Tate Britain, more than 70 works produced since the beginning of the artist's career until today, revealing the reasons why the artist figures as a conceptual landmark of this ethical and aesthetic movement.  

There is a historical debate around the concept of hegemony that has painting as its main axis, as it plays, after all, a fundamental role in the construction of Western rationality. It is possible to say that a definitive step in the elaboration of modernity was taken when the term “artist” appeared in the West in 1552, coined by Vasari in his iconic publication artist's life, where the term “Renaissance” is also mentioned in an unprecedented way. In this book, the author transfers the supernatural powers previously associated with God to the supposed genius of the master painters of his time – Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, among others, all white men living in Venice and Florence. 

Lynette-Yiadom-Boakye
Lynette Yiadom Boakye

The main practice of these artists consisted of creating an aesthetic in which the face of Jesus, from the Middle East – sacrificed son of God according to Catholicism – was portrayed in the image and likeness of merchants from Venice and Florence. This operation takes place less than a hundred years after the issuance of the papal bull, in which the Catholic Church mentions for the first time the term “black” with the aim of mentioning people and territories to be looted for being out of tune with its spiritual project. the leaflets dum miscellaneous (1455) and the Romanus Pontifex (1452) then began the Atlantic trade in enslaved people – due to their geographic and therefore ethnic proximity, we know today that Jesus resembled these people much more than the traders in the territory we know today as Italy. In this way, art, in its emergence as a product of the artist, replaces the image of the central figure in Catholicism, a subject belonging to the exploited group, by the figure of the explorer. In this operation, painting founds the necropolitical aesthetics that will be challenged in the future by groups such as Black Lives Matters, and therefore becomes the good with the highest added value in the emergence of global commerce, thus founding the art market itself. 

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
To Improvise a Mountainby Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

 Yiadom-Boakye's production transforms this dynamic as it challenges it from its very logic. In addition to bringing black characters to the center of the painting, the artist subverts the basic theory of painting based on light and shadow, where lighter tones are favored, especially in central human characters. There is, here too, a centralization of the human figure, however its characters are almost always of African descent. The background is projected as a timeless space that is generally dark and difficult to define. It builds, in this way, a dynamic between the subjects and the spaces of representation in which the viewer's gaze is attracted to the intimate atmosphere of the characters, in order to face them as human beings endowed with emotion and sensitivity.

All the characters portrayed are fictional, most of them are men and, with some frequency, it is possible to imagine a homo-affective or, at least, anti-patriarchal narrative. This is the case of First , from 2003, one of the first works by the artist and Any Number of Concerns, 2010, placed as diptychs in the first room of the exhibition. In these canvases we can see the traditional dark background and two black figures, perhaps even a little androgynous, in red robes. It is important to add that Yiadom-Boakye does not use the color black and what we see is a background produced by a tone of very dark blue interspersed with other colors.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

In any case, it is interesting to add that, in addition to painting, this is the production of a poet in which images have the function of enunciating what is beyond words. In this way, the artist's choice to place works in diptychs also evokes the production of a dialogue between the characters of the works, their titles and the spectator. This choice promotes a more fluid dynamic that necessarily displaces the viewer as a hegemonic figure and positions him more as a component in the interplay of tensions between the works. This aesthetic choice affects the logic from which the relationship between work and spectator is defined based on unidirectional dynamics. This diptych in particular places the audience as an object observed by the characters, so that one of them is constructed in a situation where the body does not figure as an object of desire, but an object of desire. We can understand, here, that the writer-painter's decolonial discourse goes beyond the mere representation of Afro-related bodies, but evokes deeper themes and subverts hierarchies.

Another important topic in this large exhibition is the relationship between these characters and the animals portrayed. In this same room, a very nice screen welcomes the public: Black Allegiance to the Cunning (Aliança Negra a Astúcia), from 2018, features a smiling boy sitting on a chair under which a fox rests. In this way, there is a narrative about the survival instinct, where the character is represented in a position of control over the animal and society itself, would appear as the wild zone, in relation to these figures. This is not the only time that animals are part of the iconography of Fly in League with the Night: they help, at strategic moments, to compose the subjective complexity of the narratives, in a movement of evoking a macro-environment beyond the control of rationality.

This dynamic corroborates with Paul Gilroy's concept of “racial brutality in Western rationality”, in order to approach such a system in a complex way. This is the case of the work Accopained to the Kindness, from 2012, where the main character looks at a scarlet macaw with affection, which is reciprocated by the animal. Throughout the more than 70 works, there are several works featuring animals, producing the most diverse meanings in the painting. Another equally striking example is The Stygian Silk, from 2019, where wild animals that resemble wolves or panthers appear in the background of the screen, almost merged with the main character. It is possible to see a harmonious relationship between what the audience interprets as an imminent danger and the main character. 

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Although they are not the majority in the symbolic universe of Fly in League with the Night , the women portrayed in the retrospective are diverse and have a more sunny quality than the men. However, it must be said that none of them is surrendered to the audience's gaze, in such a way that they always seem to be within a very specific agenda – which seems to be a conscious choice by the artist. In one of the first female images in the exhibition, we can see what appears to be a dialogue between a child and an older woman. In this work, the older person maintains an attitude of apparent seriousness, in order to hide a smile. To Improvise a Mountain, from 2018, points us to a complex and amusing situation, where the child scratches his head, seeming to be trying to deceive the mother/guardian of something that is perceived and received with a certain affection, but mainly with a certain pedagogical austerity. This painting raises some central themes of painting theory such as, for example, the older woman's pose that resembles the romantic muses, however her expression contradicts this classic reference by denoting authority, which is brought by the context. There is also a second level of relationship, which is the centralization of the narrative in the affective relationship of two Afro-descendant women, which subverts the Western trajectory of themes in painting. Mainly, due to the affection evoked in the work, added with a certain austerity.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Finally, the evocation of Afro-descendant girls is undoubtedly a choice of repertoire that reaffirms the historical place in this movement that promotes in painting a reintegration of possession regarding the theme of humanity. This trend can be seen in the Condor and the Mole, from 2019. In this work, as in the previous one, the audience figures as a passive observer, ignored by the characters. When considering that Henry Tate was an English figure whose fortune was built with the exploitation of sugar cane. In this sense, Tate Britain has figured until recent times as a central space for the exhibition of what was then understood as 'high painting' (no matter how hegemonic this term seems). Lynette's arrival at the Tate is an important symbolic milestone for our time, not just because the works propose a feeling of estrangement, in order to question the place of the audience. But mainly because, among the dozens of works by the artist, the public is led to visit unknown subjective narratives, and assume a place of otherness – in this way, the artist revisits the concept of person. Thus , Fly in League with the Night determines a fundamental change regarding representation in the greatest ethical and aesthetic collection of one of the last monarchical societies in Europe. 

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
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