Two girls are playing on a beach. A dancer limbers up, hands on hips. A man contemplates a macaw resting on his forefinger. Who are they all? Answer: nobody. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the British painter, makes portraits of people that don’t exist.
Over the past decade, this has won her a lot of praise within the art world, along with the fact that her imaginary cast is black. After all, Western art hasn’t been kind to black men and women. Maids, grooms, hirelings, stewards: their roles, historically, have been prescribed.
The characters populating Ms Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits, though, are protagonists, not bit-part players. In spite of their fictitious origins, they have with a compelling presence. They are not civil-rights campaigners or activists for Black Lives Matter, just autonomous people up to, well, nothing much: smiling, smoking, lounging on beaches, peering through binoculars.
“It isn’t so much about placing black people in the canon,” the artist has said, “as it is about saying that we’ve always been here […] self-sufficient, outside of nightmares and imaginations.” Who would challenge that?
Yet, while her work may be straightforward to write about regarding race – which I suspect explains why Ms Yiadom-Boakye, who is also a poet, attracts literary champions such as Zadie Smith – I struggle with a widespread view, that her “true” subject is the sensuous medium of oils. Really? Call me a sceptic, but Tate Britain’s mid-career survey, Fly in League with the Night, featuring roughly 80 works stretching back to 2003 and including several pictures produced in her south London kitchen during lockdown, exposes Ms Yiadom-Boakye’s limitations.