In an ideal world, you could write about the excellent Lynette Yiadom-Boakye exhibition at Tate Britain without mentioning race. Her enigmatic portraits, which have a Hockney-esque knack of capturing not just an expression, but an entire personality, don’t seem particularly concerned with race, beyond the fact they feature black people – something that’s still sadly unusual in major galleries. In fact, Yiadom-Boakye is the first black British woman to have a retrospective at the Tate Britain. This, at least, is a great start.
The curation comes from the “chuck ‘em in at the deep end” school of thought, with no captions or artist biography to contextualise the dozens of portraits. Further adding to the sense of playful mystery, the pieces themselves are titled things like “Pale For the Rapture”, “Mystic Edifice”, and, my personal favourite, “Fiscal Playsuit”.
They vary hugely in style, from ‘all-hanging-out’ portraits that skirt close to abstraction to what appear to be candid and quietly touching moments.
It would be fascinating to see this exhibition without knowing the premise behind it: that none of these people are real. Rather than paint from sitters, which the portraits suggest, Yiadom-Boakye draws from classical paintings, memories, pure imagination. They are characters in a drama that plays out in a single rectangle.
It’s a strange sensation, then, to study these paintings, which draw you in despite yourself. I found myself speculating on these people’s lives: “Why is that man wearing a pink glove?”, “What are these people taking a cigarette break from?”, “Why are these lads standing around in their undies?”
I get the impression Yiadom-Boakye has a wicked sense of humour, although that’s not to undermine the fact there’s a serious artist at work: to capture the essence of someone in front of you is one thing – to conjure it from thin air is another.
There’s a freshness to the show, a sense of momentum driving you from room to room, which may have been aided by the fact some of the works were made during lockdown, with the exhibition itself twice delayed. What a strange time to be a working artist. This show, at least, hints at an artistic landscape beyond the gloom of 2020 that might include representations of all kinds of faces – even if those faces never existed.