Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Essays and Letters

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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Essays and Letters

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

21 January – 6 March 2010

Essays and Letters


Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Imaginary Portraits

The imaginary portrait is a peculiar genre that has only

Their nebulous settings – one might say, as one often can of the

intermittently cropped up in the history of Western painting –

portraits of Velázquez, that their environment is simply that of

one thinks above all of Fragonard’s ‘figures de fantaisie’ – but has

painting itself – isolate the figures from all distracting externalities.

become increasingly significant in the last couple of decades. I

It’s hard even to guess when these people are supposed to have

first began noticing imaginary portraits as a trend in New York

lived: their generally nondescript clothing tells us they are not

around 1990, when painters like John Currin, Catherine Howe

from far in the past, but they may not be entirely contemporary

and Lisa Yuskavage caught my eye. Now, a generation younger

either; they could as easily have looked this way forty years ago

than those artists, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye gives a very different

as today. Rather, Yiadom-Boakye seems to want to avail herself

spin to the genre. For her older contemporaries, the imaginary

of the novelist’s privilege of conjuring the complex inner life of

portrait was essentially a device motivated by a perverse sort of

an imaginary person. Always, her characters are posing. They

formalism, a way for painting to talk about painting – its history,

are trying to present themselves as they would like to be seen.

its conventions, its practice. I see Yiadom-Boakye’s concerns

And yet they show something more or, perhaps it’s better to say,

as being rather different. Not that she is uninterested in her

something other than an easy public face. Perhaps the artist

medium’s capacity for reflexive self-interrogation. But I don’t

herself could not say what that something else is – but she saw it,

think that is her fundamental concern. More important is what

she knew that it was the thing she meant, and she gave it to the

seems to be an almost novelistic impulse in Yiadom-Boakye’s

rest of us to see. I or any other viewer can try to say what that

work. She seems to want to conjure a character, much as

something is, but only in the realisation that there is no way to

a writer of fiction might, synthesising him or her out of some

confirm one’s conjecture. That accounts for a fascinating tension

imponderable amalgamation of diverse observations from both

in these paintings: they show us people who are more complex

life itself and the art of her precursors.

than we can ever know.

What makes this novelistic impulse all the more surprising – and

While the painter can communicate the sense that there is

more powerful for that – is that, while there are exceptions, most

an inner life at work in each of her characters, she cannot – in

of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are of single figures, not of groups.

contrast to the novelist – pretend to make that life present to us.

Because people are not shown interacting with each other, there

Paintings show us the surface of the visible world, not the workings

is no implication of narrative. The novelistic impulse at work in

of the mind. Yet the intense painterliness deployed by Yiadom-

these paintings is not a narrative impulse. Nor does she want to

Boakye complicates the viewer’s ability to grasp these surfaces,

picture the individual as a product of his or her time and place.

for it constantly reminds us that what we are given to see in the


Barry Schwabsky

painting is not after all the flesh of a person’s face, the texture of their hair or of the fabric of their clothing, but that of paint, of a once-fluid substance with which the artist has exerted herself in order to evoke an image. In doing so, it also reminds us that the image is not inert, but has been charged with intentionality, with thought, with inwardness. Not the inwardness of the fictional subject, of course, but of the artist herself. And yet because her thought was so intently of this imaginary person, that distinction becomes tenuous: an imaginary man or woman is a vessel for the artist’s feeling, but in taking shape through this process of imagining, the feeling has been transformed, has become the feeling of another. Barry Schwabsky is the art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His books include The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press), Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon Press), and Opera: Poems 1981-2002 (Meritage Press).


Piano 2009 Oil on canvas 180 x 160cm



11pm, Thursday 2009 Oil on canvas 200 x 130cm


Doves 2009 Oil on canvas 200 x 120cm


5am, Cadiz 2009 Oil on canvas 160 x 200cm



Stage Directions for a Short Tragedy

Opening scene: (The smallest of three pigeons leans against a

Mary clearly eats very little. She is tall and lean with slightly

lamp-post on the corner and watches.)

protruding teeth that seem to have beaten all attempts at correction. This would not be so noticeable were her

A couple emerges from the mainline railway station. They are in

cheekbones less sharp and cheeks less sunken through lack

very high spirits.

of food (Note to Casting: find model cum actress cum dancer cum singer).

They carry little: she a tan leather handbag (Note to Wardrobe dept: oversized with a gold clasp, expensive), and he a camera

(The smallest of the three pigeons leans in a little closer to get a

(Note to Prop dept: enormous lens, analogue, old).

better look at them. He stifles a chuckle and is not heard.)

They cross to the bus depot where several people await different

Her companion (we’ll call him Joe, no, Geoffroy. He is English,

buses in long queues under the bus shelter.

though of mainland European extraction perhaps) is at least half a foot shorter than her. He dresses as the idle and inexplicably rich

Initially they stand apart from the queues, in the sunshine.

of London invariably do (Note to Wardrobe: white shirt not tucked

They canoodle, he fusses over her hair, she over his lapels, like

in, dark jeans neither skinny nor slack, jumper tied loosely about

couples do.

his shoulders, brogues, ironic cufflinks etc).

(Curious, the smallest of the three pigeons flies up to the top of

Geoffroy has two glossy brown curtains of hair, which only partially

the lamp-post for a better view from above.)

obscure a small, pointed and rodent-like face, a handsome and not particularly likeable face.

She, the female half of the couple (we’ll call her Mary for now), laughs loudly, intrusively, as if wanting to be noticed. Thus many

Geoffroy has now taken his camera out of its case (Note to Prop

of those standing around look over at them, irritated by the

dept: it should be in an old case, brown, battered, worn).

disturbance, as Londoners are irritated by any disturbance. Mary is striking playful poses with Geoffroy’s encouragement. Mary wears little (Note to Wardrobe: tiny khaki shorts, bare

Geoffroy is taking many photos of her. Mary is confident in front

legs, wooden heels, white vest, brown leather jacket), her hair is

of the camera. Geoffroy is an animated, if somewhat affected

tousled, brown and blonde, and her skin is golden.



Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

(The smallest of the three pigeons is quite beside himself with

body is writhing about in the gutter, bony little legs akimbo in the

laughter by this point, and very nearly loses his balance. He

road, shooting Mary from every possible angle.

manages to regain some of his composure, but not all of it.) So the higher Mary goes, the more photos Geoffroy takes. And Geoffroy and Mary are now very involved with the photo session

the more photos Geoffroy takes the higher Mary feels inspired

and grow increasingly daring with composition, oblivious to the

to go. They are both very excited. And they are distracted, very

disdain of the people.

much in their own world.

Mary removes her jacket and tosses it onto the bonnet of a nearby

Hence, Mary has a terrible shock when the pigeon droppings hit

cab, much to the distaste of the cab driver (Note to Casting: a

her square in the right eye. So terrible a shock that she falls from

rotund and ruddy-faced cab driver).

the top of the lamp-post and onto Geoffroy who is still laid out flat on his back below. And this is just as well as it means they are both

Geoffroy continues snapping.

unconscious (or dead) before the double-decker bus rolls around the corner and over his two little legs, which are still poking out

Mary removes her shoes and shins up the lamp-post, just a little

into the road.

way up. (The smallest of the three pigeons flies off, a little remorseful but Geoffroy takes position beneath her, lying flat on the ground with

extremely hungry.)

his lower body in the road and still snapping, shouting “Bravo, bravo! Higher!”

It is a dreadful scene. But the bodies are taken away and everything is cleaned up nicely.

(The smallest of the three pigeons can see Mary edging her way towards him and is not happy about it.)

And when the camera film is developed, all agree that the photographs are very beautiful.

Mary shimmies higher up the cold metal pole, sinewy coltish thighs straining to hold on, smiling and waving down. Geoffroy wants more. “Beautiful! Higher, baby, higher!” His bony



Wingbeater 2009 Oil on canvas 200 x 120cm


La Cloche 2009 Oil on canvas 200 x 160cm




The World In Accordance With 2009 Oil on canvas 180 x 200cm


Pleased to Meet You 2009 Installation of 20 paintings Oil on canvas 42 x 37cm each (framed)







Biography Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in 1977 in London to Ghanaian parents; she completed her postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy Schools, London, in 2003. Recent solo shows have taken place at Faye Fleming & Partner in Geneva (2007 and 2009). Group shows include Living Together: Strategies for Co-

habitation at the Centro Cultural Montehermoso Kulturunea, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and the Museo de Arte Contemporรกnea de Vigo in Spain (2009); the 7th Gwangju Biennial, Korea (2008); Flow at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2008); The Unhomely:

Phantom Scenes in Global Society, the 2nd Seville Biennial (20062007), and Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the Barbican, London (2004-2005). Works courtesy of Faye Fleming & Partner, Geneva

Catalogue no 48 January 2010 Cover image The World In Accordance With, 2009, detail Michael Stevenson Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 Cape Town, South Africa Tel +27 (0)21 462 1500 Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Photography and image repro Mario Todeschini Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town



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