More subtle, perhaps, is the reinvention of the chessboard tiles on which Vermeer has staged his archetypal tableaux, The Music Lesson (1662–65) and The Art of Painting (1666–68). In Yiadom-Boakye’s hands, the geometry relaxes into something less rigidly choreographed; something more real. In her recent painting To Improvise a Mountain (2018), for instance, which repurposes the orthogonal tiles from Vermeer’s works, an ambiguous drama glimpsed in the clenched fist of the recumbent figure transforms the scene as the urgency of passion supersedes cerebral allegory.
Amid all this intense teasing, I can’t help wondering if what is really being unraveled and put back together again in Yiadom-Boakye’s work is the history of art itself. It is no secret that portraiture in Western art is a Facebook of white power and male privilege. For centuries, the genre knew itself as a luxury of Empire. In many ways, Yiadom-Boakye’s heads turn the conventions on theirs. The dearth of black likenesses in European visual culture has given the artist a yawning void to fill, and a blank slate.
Would Yiadom-Boakye, who participated in the acclaimed Ghana Freedom pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, ever characterize herself as playing such a role? “Lynette doesn’t really like to comment too much on this,” says Schlieker, “but she has talked about what she calls ‘the infinite possibility of blackness’ and of black life, and how she wants to move beyond stereotypes and expectations to a different reality.” Still just in her forties, she already has. What more can anyone ask from art than that?
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night is at Tate Britain until 26 February 2023.
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