Leigh Robb writes on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

A highly sought-after artist, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a British painter, poet and writer of Ghanaian descent. Her arresting painting, The Black Watchful, 2018, is the first work by this artist to enter an Australian public collection, travelling directly to the Art Gallery of South Australia from the 57th Carnegie International 2018, held at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. This award-winning work was part of a suite of paintings that saw Yiadom-Boakye receive both the 2018 Carnegie Prize and the Postcommodity Fine Prize.

Yiadom-Boakye’s international reputation was cemented 
with her solo exhibition, Any Number of Preoccupations, at the Studio Museum Harlem in New York in 2010. Another
 solo exhibition, Extracts and Verses, at London’s Chisenhale Gallery two years later, led to her being one of only four artists shortlisted for the Tate’s 2013 Turner Prize, the same year in which she was selected for the 55th Venice Biennale in the Central Pavilion. She is currently representing the first-ever Ghanian pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, in company with Felicia Abban, John Alkomfrah, El Anatsui, Selasi Awusi Sosu and Ibrahim Mahama. In 2020 Lynette Yiadom-Boakye will have her first major survey exhibition at TATE Britain.

One of the most disruptive aspects of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work is its ability to reclaim the art-historical tropes of classical portraiture and in turn reshape the genre. Her recent series depicts individual figures in contemplative poses: The Black Watchful shows a woman rendered in profile, facing to the left. She stands proud in a verdant patch of brushy strokes – a grassy expanse of greens, browns and blacks. Although birds are a familiar motif in Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings, in The Black Watchful she paints a black dog beside the figure. The faithful dog imparts to the work and its subject the gravitas and authority of nineteenth-century portraits, with the posture of the figure and her leotard-clad, classic athletic build amplifying this interpretation.

The New York art critic, Faye Hirsch, commented about the artist’s work, that it,

taps a deep well in Western painting, recalling expressive devices in classic portraits by Velázquez, Manet and Degas, with one big difference: Nearly every one of Yiadom-Boakye’s characters is black.

By means of painting, Yiadom-Boakye addresses both the historical Eurocentrism of traditional portraiture and her Ghanaian heritage, simultaneously – and importantly – empowering her black subjects. Yet, as with The Black Watchful, her figures are fictional; their surroundings are indeterminate. The artist creates characters that are composites of,

different sources: scrapbooks, drawings, photographs.

Over the past half-millennium Western painters have only rarely painted non-Western faces and bodies, and when they did, it was often to underscore the supposed exoticism or ‘otherness’ of their Aboriginal, African or Asian subjects. Similar to the output of her contemporaries, Kerry James Marshall and Kehinde Wiley, the works of Yiadom-Boakye determinedly correct the historic underrepresentation of people of colour in painting, as well as in the broader art world and its institutions. The Black Watchful speaks to the Gallery’s larger project of redressing this imbalance. Considered alongside works in the Gallery’s collection such as Julie Dowling’s At risk of dog bite, 2003, Kara Walker’s Emancipation Approximation, scene #5, 2000, or Chris Ofili’s Black kiss suite of prints, 2006, The Black Watchful becomes a potent addition to AGSA’s assessment of ‘otherness’ and decolonisation and critiques the historic relationship between race, representation and art. As author Zadie Smith describes, Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings become powerful because they render the ‘invisible visible’.

Leigh Robb is Curator of Contemporary Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 36.

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/books/review/lynette-yiadom-boakye.html

2 Yiadom-Boakye quoted in Darryl Pinckney, ‘The trickster’s art’, The New York Review of Books, 17 August 2017, pp. 3–6, https://wwwnybooks.com/articles/2017/08/ tricksters-art/