BY Jennifer Higgie in Features | 21 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

A Life in a Day

The fictitious portraits of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

BY Jennifer Higgie in Features | 21 MAR 12

If the 20th century has taught us anything, perhaps it is this: surfaces are unstable, and appearances are not, on the whole, to be trusted. The deceptively amiable paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are no exception. They may look like rather straightforward representations of people doing quite ordinary things – running along a beach, reading a book, taking a nap, or, more recently, dancing – but they’re not portraits, they’re pictures of people who don’t exist. They’re so full of personality that their fiction is initially a little unsettling. This is compounded by their technical proficiency: without the aid of photographs, models or preliminary sketches, Yiadom-Boakye wields her paintbrush with an old-fashioned ease and fluency, conjuring nuanced characters from her imagination. When I first saw her paintings, I assumed that they took a long time to make, but each one is, in fact, made in a day. This self-imposed constraint is enforced by the artist not only because, as Yiadom-Boakye told me, she has ‘a short attention span’, but because she doesn’t want the surface ‘to look too laboured’.1 Peer closely at their rich, gestural surfaces and the speed and urgency of the brushstrokes becomes apparent in the occasionally wonky anatomical detail or inconsistent light source. What I first took to be images that, both in their making and in their subject matter, embody a mood of weekend-like serenity morphed into something more urgent and indeterminate, less polished and more interesting. Flaws, being human, are so much more endearing than perfection. 

Any Number of Preoccupations, 2010, oil on canvas, 1.6 x 2 m. All images courtesy Corvi-Mora, London, and Jack Shaimman Gallery, New York

As much as they mine the appearance of a kind of generic ordinariness, the longer you look at Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings the odder and richer they become. The people in them are often detached from anything that could link them to an actual time, location or even, on occasion, gender; their clothes usually are as neutral as their settings, and so blandly functional it would seem they exist simply to protect the modesty of their imaginary wearers. (An exception is a new work, Greenfinch, 2012, a ‘portrait’ of an androgynous dancer in a velvety leotard, who gazes out from a ruffle of deep green-blue feathers.) Yet, despite the fact that there is something determinedly average about these people – who, apart from the children, tend to be neither very young nor very old, seemingly neither rich nor poor – they exist in atmospheres touched by a compellingly faint frisson of something not quite explained. Their enigmatic titles – The Edifying Oracle’s Cheque, say, or Noble Aggressives (both 2012) – hint at undercurrents of something more complicated than leisure and daydreams. 

Not much happens in these pictures – a furtive glance is a big event. A woman, dressed in a short pink dress, smiles warmly, almost flirtatiously (Clarity in Waiting, 2012); a melancholy woman places her hand on her chest (No Place for Nature, 2011). She is absorbed in her thoughts, immersed in a soft-twilight blue; two girls, framed by a cold white sky and sitting in a tree, glance up as if we’ve interrupted their secret conversation (A Life to Die For, 2012). Variations on doing very little are seemingly endless in Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings, but it’s an idleness tempered by the expressions she elicits from her cast, which range from deep self-absorption to genial comradeship, to kindness, to a vaguely malevolent hilarity. Often her characters are smiling – whether to themselves or at someone else, we’ll never know – although perhaps smiling is the wrong word: Yiadom-Boakye told me that she ‘prefers grins or leers to smiles’ as they’re more loaded with complicated potential. 

11pm Sybdat, 2011, oil on canvas, 2 x 1.3 m

What does link the subjects of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings is that almost every one of her imaginary characters is black. Considering the history of portrait painting – walk through London’s National Gallery, say, and you won’t find one painting by a black artist, while almost every study of a black subject by a white painter is a representation of a servant, a slave or a ‘noble savage’ – this lends her seemingly benign subject-matter a radicality that springs not from images of rebelliousness but from the repeated representations of normality. Yiadom-Boakye, whose parents emigrated to England from Ghana, told me: ‘When the issue of colour comes up, I think it would be a lot stranger if they were white; after all, I was raised by black people […] for me this sense of a kind of normality isn’t necessarily celebratory, it’s more a general idea of normality. This is a political gesture for me. We’re used to looking at portraits of white people in painting.’

Not much happens in these pictures — a furtive glance is a big event. 

The politics of black portraiture, however, is both fuelled and tempered by Yiadom-Boakye’s genuine love of, and engagement with, the history of western portrait painting. Her points of reference are decidedly non-contemporary; her studio is filled with books on Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet and Walter Sickert – artists who employed the innate artifice of representation in order, conversely, to express the humanity of their subjects and whom Yiadom-Boakye likes because they ‘weren’t formally perfect but there was a kind of violence around them that they made clear’. (Her recent paintings of dancers nod especially to Degas; Sickert’s recollection of him declaring that ‘in painting you must give the idea of the true by means of the false’2 is particularly apt here.) In Sickert’s paintings of music halls, for example, the noise might be intimated but his characters appear to exist in a deeply silent place – one with which the characters who populate Yiadom-Boakye’s work are not unfamiliar.


Lavender for Thistle, 2011, oil on canvas, 65 x 60 cm

One obvious difference in approach isolates Yiadom-Boakye from her influences. Whereas they all employed portraiture in order to reflect upon the world at large, Yiadom-Boakye realized quite early on that she was less interested in capturing the idiosyncrasies of a particular person than in concentrating on painting itself, without the distractions and responsibilities a relationship to a living, breathing subject involves. She told me: ‘I always loved figurative painting and I’ve always wondered what that power was that I kept coming back to and I realized it was less about individuals than about how they had been pictorially constructed. What was it about their eyes? How was that achieved through this painting?’

Two characters recur again and again in her works – the only ones to do so and who, Yiadom-Boakye told me, she is ‘getting to know better’. One is a man in a striped top, the other a handsome man in a white, long-sleeved T-shirt who she has most recently painted wearing a silver chain and a red pendant (Bound Over to Keep the Peace, 2012). Both have appeared in different incarnations and signal the beginning of a new series of works. The artist begins a picture knowing roughly what it will include – a woman in a row boat, say – and then the personality grows from her experiments with the paint. Similarly, her titles often evolve organically from word or image associations, or from random trains of thought. A painting is finished, in her words, when it has a ‘potency and presence’ that ‘isn’t too theatrical’. 

Bound Over to Keep the Peace, 2012, oil on canvas, 2.5 x 2 m

Yiadom-Boakye also writes short stories. I recently read one that, like her paintings, privileges mood and atmosphere over detail. It focuses on a family of ‘indeterminate nationality’ who are served by a waiter who is ‘clean-shaven, dark, possibly Italian, Israeli or Greek by extraction but with an Anglo-American accent’. They are at ‘a beach resort somewhere in the United States (possibly Florida or California) or the United Kingdom (Cornwall or Brighton)’. By the end of the story, the family, who are universally cruel, have been killed by the clever machinations of a depressed squirrel and a wise crab. After having spent time with her pictures, the tale made a strange kind of sense. If there is one quality that unites all of Yiadom-Boakye’s characters, either in written form or a painting, is their sense of empowerment and possibility. ‘I don’t’, she told me, ‘like to paint victims.’ 

1 All quotes from author’s visit to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s studio, 12 February, 2012
2 Walter Sickert, ‘The Royal Academy’, English Review, June 1912

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye lives in London, UK. Her exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London, runs until 13 May 2012. Recent solo shows include Corvi-Mora, London, in 2011; Studio Museum Harlem, New York, USA, and Stevenson, Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010. Her solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, opens in November. Her work is included in ‘The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial’, New York, until 22 April 2012.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.