Enigmatic eyes peer at you expectedly throughout Fly in League with the Night. Warm grins on the faces of ‘Elephant’ (2014) – and even the fox of ‘Black Allegiance to the Cunning’ (2018) – are ready to welcome you through the door.
But others ignore you altogether. Figures tower in ‘To Tell Them There It’s Got To’ (2013) and ‘Pale for the Rapture’ (2016), finding you thinking what are they thinking, even pleading for their attention. Such contrast – both between the looking and not-looking, and the striking black figures set against crisp white canvas and walls – permeates Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s practice.
Yet Yiadom-Boakye doesn’t consider herself a portrait artist, per se. Her figures are wholly fictional – drawn from found images, her friends, and her own imagination. Also a writer and poet, the British-Ghanaian polymath often draws upon fiction to depict reality.
Fly in League with the Night at Tate Britain is her most extensive retrospective to date, comprising eighty works from 2003 to the present – including one produced during the lockdown. Originally opening in November 2020, it was closed and postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and now reopens for a limited time.
Home working fitted Yiadom-Boakye’s approach. Her fictional figures are nevertheless inspired by her immediate surroundings. Seeking a new subject, she simply parades the paintings in her conservatory and asks, ‘Who is missing?’.
Her curation of this exhibition is equally meticulous, revealing an artist self-confident, yet refreshingly relatable. Yiadom-Boakye constructed a scaled-down replica of the space at home, arranging works by theme rather than time. Surprises can thus emerge from between the individuals, like the rare group gathering of busied bodies in ‘Diplomacy 1’ (2009).
Such remarkable span in subject is testament to the artist’s own range of cultural inspirations. Heaving exhibition-shop bookshelves boast influences from Degas to Miles Davis – via Jameses Baldwin, Brown (and Marlon) – to Netflix and Nina Simone. A carefully cultivated playlist – available online amongst plenty of interviews, events, and resources – accompanies your journey around the space. Her own poetry is packed into the exhibition books.
So perhaps surprisingly, the wordsmith deprives the gallery walls of any text beyond the works and their titles. It’s partly a necessary, practical exclusion to squeeze all eighty works inside.
But underlying is her determination to let the visuals speak for themselves. For Yiadom-Boakye, her works’ poetic titles are not ‘explanations, but descriptions’. The story is embedded in the painting, the storytelling or narrative propped up by her clever curation – challenging, but incredibly effective.
As a reader, I am often guilty of focussing on the adjacent plaque before the painting. But Fly in League with the Night thus demands the viewer interpret these works directly and for themselves. Subtle pinks and blues emanating around the figures of ‘Songs in the Head’ (2015) suggest them as characters humming with colour and tune.
This deft use of colour draws together seemingly disparate subjects, characterised by striking black subjects set against white canvas.
But there’s great nuance here too. The young men of ‘No Need of Speech’, ‘A Concentration’ and ‘For The Sake Of Angels’ (2018) stand apart from their monochromatic backgrounds, their shadows still casting gentle impressions on the wall.
‘The Woman that Watches’ (2015) simultaneously boasts soft and meticulously blended flesh, but a rough jagged spine, and an equally angular background. Her complexities and forward-looking nature are laid bare to her onlookers.
In this sense, Yiadom-Boakye’s imaginary figures are universal. The artist recognises that colour – in both artistic and anthropological terms – is often relational and informed by constructs.
Without blurbs and biographies, her figures exist without the need to explain the fact of their existence. And though her works speak to blackness, perhaps it is telling that she never uses a pure black paint. Even her haunting ‘The Stygian Silk’ (2019) – an affecting nod to the black dogs of depression – dives but to the deepest shades of blue.
Consider these individual portraits as Yiadom-Boakye’s pushback, her defiance ‘to be measured relative to something that actually has nothing to do with you or your experience, some self-appointed superior, the ghost of who you ought to be… none of this has ever made any sense and yet somehow you live with it, live in it.’
Such remarkable works thus speak to the infinite possibilities of representation, and many shades of identity.
Their podcast Empire Lines is available on all streaming platforms.