Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk

Words by Carlotta Annunziata

London, Serpentine Gallery

The Serpentine Gallery is currently showcasing the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The ‘Verses After Dusk’ exhibition reveals the artist relationship with the figures that exist in her imagination, which come to life on large canvases throughout delicate strokes of paint.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, of Ghanian descent, was born in 1977 in London. Her oil paintings depict human figures that appear to exist outside of a specific time and place, self-described as “suggestions of people that don’t share our concerns or anxieties”. In a recent conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist she talks about how she used to draw and paint people she knew and it never was what she wanted it to be. “I have always preferred to work from my imagination, using memories or found images”. Her paintings are very delicate, releasing a very calming and soothing feeling, and depicting abstracted landscapes, with most of the characters in movement: dancing, walking, almost effortlessly, across the canvases.

Seen from afar, the paintings are dark, almost monochrome, filled with dark hues of green, brown and grey. The figures are sometimes barely visible, inviting the viewer to go up close, almost entering their dream world. The context of the gallery, located in the middle of Kensington Gardens, sits perfectly with her work. “Positioning them whey they are is very special since they have the window on the side, they seem so much more expansive and bigger.”

Adding to the ambiguity of the figures are the enigmatic titles given to each work, such as ‘Any Number of Preoccupations’, ‘Shoot the Desperate, Hug the Needy’ or ‘Some Distance from Now’, which invite the viewer to consider the subjects as suggestions rather than specific portraits. For Lynette, none of the titles are descriptive of the image. “I enjoy the sound of language and the sound of words next to a particular painting or image.” Indeed, she mentions the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare as her biggest inspirations, talking about how her first passion was not painting, which came later on in life, but reading and writing stories. 

Her work stands out in today’s contemporary art scene; first of all because she is a traditional painter and second of all because she paints black faces which have been, generally speaking, fairly excluded from art history. This has allowed her to raise timeless questions of identity and representation in art and the shortcomings of art history. But she insists that for here there is nothing political about painting black figures. “It is not something that I find strange, it does not seem odd to me. The way I’m thinking about colour is how these colours become skin, cloth, a field and how these colours qualify each other. They are completely empty without each other.”

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk is on until September 15th.