Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Tate Britain, review: an art-world darling who coasts on clichés


For all her literary and artistic champions, this monotonous exhibition exposes the British painter’s limitations

Complication (2013, detail) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Complication (2013, detail) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Credit:  © Courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

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.

A Passion Like No Other (2012) Credit: © Courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Arranged achronologically, without explanatory labels, the exhibition feels monotonous. Typically, Ms Yiadom-Boakye presents her figures – mostly singly, sometimes in groups – against monochrome blank backgrounds. She then offsets her dark, muted palette (by her own admission, she struggles with colour) with dramatic accents of white: eyeballs, cigarettes, teeth, even (in 2013’s Complication) a pair of Y-fronts bright enough to star in a Daz advert.

The figures, often inspired by images clipped from magazines, are almost always young and physically attractive, while the mood is usually a variation on modish melancholy (the pensive stare is a default pose). Imagine a bunch of models dressing up for a shoot as Picasso’s brooding harlequins and pierrots. These pictures smoulder, but never ignite. They’re too chic.

Ms Yiadom-Boakye is in dialogue with other modern painters, too: Manet and Degas (there are lots of dancers) both spring to mind. However, this belies the timidity of her brushwork. Her faces have a controlled, portrait-prize competence. Taking pains here, though, jars with her anatomy elsewhere, which can be arbitrarily awkward: legs like spaghetti, flipper-ish feet, a hunchbacked shoulder providing a clumsy platform for a cat.

 To Improvise a Mountain (2018) Credit:  © Courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Animals recur, but lack bestial instincts: an owl as unyielding as Victorian taxidermy; that cat, its wire-stiff whiskers laboriously picked out, has a tail as rigid as ironwork on a balustrade. The flowers in Avalanche (2011) are boringly neat. If only there were more unexpected flourishes, such as the bright pink mitt randomly worn by one leering figure, like a limp washing-up glove pinned to the canvas.

Then, there are Ms Yiadom-Boakye’s “poetic” titles, deliberately unrelated to her subjects. Mystic Edifice: chap with a red towel upon his head. Coagulant Dangers: a couple of blokes smoking on a sofa. Could these names be more pretentious? A small, perfectly pleasant picture of a girl seen in profile, lost in thought while resting her chin upon a hand, is called Penny for Them. What writer would let that cliché pass?

In the end, Ms Yiadom-Boakye isn’t an audacious talent, radically reinventing portraiture, but a quieter, more conventional painter, raking over the embers of a bygone avant-garde. 

From December 2 until May 9;