I happened to visit the Serpentine Sackler gallery in London a few weeks ago, primarily to see the Zaha Hadid restaurant/extension but was pleasantly surprised to see an exhibition of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portrait paintings.
At first I thought they were ‘nice’; with flowing brush strokes, good delicate balance between abstraction and representation, or abstractness and realism, even if a bit ‘dark’, but all together my ‘style’. However I couldn’t find much theory behind all of it, as I wondered what it all meant. Her own quote in the exhibition text was equally abstract and devoid of substantial meaning:
“Painting for me is the subject. The figures exist through paint, through colour, line, tone and mark making. They are very present but somewhere else all together.”
And when I realized that the subjects, the people in these paintings are fictional, I became a bit obsessed to find out more, as this is something quite rare (I’ve never seen another artist do this).
One of the main questions I had: why would anyone paint a dark-skinned subject over a dark coloured background? You couldn’t see anything (except for some teeth and bits of white clothing). But perhaps that’s the whole point. Perhaps she’s trying to express what it feels like to be on stage but ‘unseen’, to be talking but ‘unheard’, a ‘marebito’ (an enchanted person from a distant land) skilled at her craft but sometimes all one sees is her craft and not the person (the dancer and the soccer star with their backs turned to the audience).
Sometimes she’s dying to let you know she is, but you can’t quite see her, only a sense of the level of her craft which is represented by the posture and clothing worn (Any Number of Preoccupations (2010), and the male and female black subjects on a black background).
In the final assessment, the black male and female characters in Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings, which must be seen in totality, are actually her; snapshots and representations of parts of her life, of what she’s going through or what these parts of her life, feels like.