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The powerful portraits of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Posted on 13 Oct 2020

In this extract from ‘The Artists Who Will Change the World’ by Omar Kholeif, meet artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In a history of portraiture dominated by white figures, Yiadom-Boakye’s richly intense depictions have a timeless quality.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 1 pm, Mason’s Yard, 2014, oil on canvas. Courtesy Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Corvi-Mora, London. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye attests that the figures in her paintings are all fictional – imagined. Ranging in size, many of Yiadom-Boakye’s oil paintings evoke the scale of historic ‘swagger’ portraits, status images commissioned by wealthy aristocrats. This style, also known as the Grand Style, came to the fore in the 1700s, which goes to illustrate that Yiadom-Boakye is as much a student of painting as she is of the imagination.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Bluebird, 2014, oil on canvas. Courtesy Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Corvi-Mora, London. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Yiadom-Boakye famously usually completes her portraits in a day in order to capture the spirit or essence of a moment. As such, her works function like photographs in her memory, exuding an urgency that can occasionally be noticed in the broad brushstrokes used to evoke the backgrounds before which her characters are located.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The Devil Having Said So, 2012, oil on canvas. Courtesy Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Corvi-Mora, London. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

One of the most striking presentations of Yiadom-Boakye’s work took place at the 2015 Sharjah Biennial, in which she presented two rooms, one with portraits of male figures and the other of female figures. In two of the male paintings, Lapwing Over Lark (2015) and Come Hither Through Heather (2015), she showed one man dressed in what looks like traditional African garb and the other dressed as if he were a member of British nobility. Yet both have similar stances, bodies turned away from the viewer’s gaze, one in profile and the other with his head lowered. By withholding their gaze, Yiadom-Boakye asks us to consider, whether intentionally or not, how black bodies have historically been objectified, and how these figures will be free to roam without the pursuant and active gazes of those wishing to colonize them.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Underlife, 2013, oil on canvas. Courtesy Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Corvi-Mora, London. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in 1977 in London, where she lives and works.

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