A title card with the text overlay Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Kingfisher, 2011 Oil on canvas
“Gradually...the world is revealing itself to us. And, as presented by Yiadom-Boakye, that world is growing right before our eyes, in variety of inhabitants, authority of depiction, and painterly pleasures.”

—Robert Storr

A painting by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, titled Kingfisher, dated 2011.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Kingfisher, 2011
Oil on canvas
27 3/4 x 25 3/4 inches (70.5 x 65.4 cm)

This viewing room presents Kingfisher (2011), a striking early painting by the British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977). One of the most celebrated figurative painters of her generation, the recipient of a Carnegie Prize in 2018 and a Turner Prize nominee, Yiadom-Boakye’s work was the subject of a widely acclaimed solo exhibition at Tate Britain in 2020, which returns to the museum this November.

Drawing from a variety of source material, including allusions to European art history and found images, Yiadom-Boakye creates portraits based on her own imagination. Set in abstract settings deliberately removed from markers of place or time, the artist’s enigmatic, fictional sitters nonetheless project the potency of real souls.

Installation view of an exhibition by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Tate Britain, dated 2020

Installation view, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night, Tate Britain, 2020

Installation view, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night, Tate Britain, 2020

At once familiar and mysterious, Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are typically completed in a single day—a practice, the artist explains, that enables her to work with tactile paint that has not yet dried on the surface. This generative and spontaneous way of working contributes to her atmospheric style, which is imbued with an expressiveness highlighted by textured brushstrokes and emphasis on the physicality of paint—usually oil on canvas or coarse linen.

A portrait with Harry Belafonte and Charles White

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 2017. Photo by Nadine Ijewere

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 2017. Photo by Nadine Ijewere

“Yiadom-Boakye has drawn on portrait painters Walter Sickert and John Singer Sargent as influences in her use of color and shadow. But there is also something baroque in her technique—the chiaroscuro effect that comes from dark, tonal backgrounds, with the color white only appearing as a flash of bared teeth or a shirt collar. Particularly in her early work, some figures look spectral.”

—Aurella Yussuf, Frieze

Painting of Velázquez

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, c.1608–1670. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, c.1608–1670. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Her work taps a deep well in Western painting, recalling expressive devices in classic portraits by Velázquez, Manet and Degas, with one big difference: Nearly every one of Yiadom-Boakye’s characters is black. They are also entirely fictional, inventions of a British artist whose canny deployment of the genre of portraiture summons both its triumphs and its omissions.”

—Faye Hirsch, The New York Times 

Installation view of the painting titled Kingfisher by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, dated 2011

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kingfisher, 2011

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kingfisher, 2011

The artist has explained how her paintings often begin with formal aspects: “A color, a composition, a gesture, a particular direction of the light.”

In Kingfisher, a figure in a feathered collar, a recurring motif in Yiadom-Boakye’s oeuvre, stares at the viewer. Yiadom-Boakye concentrates on the head and upper torso, employing the three-quarter view traditionally used in portraiture. Despite her emphasis on formal considerations, a muted background and the subject’s gaze contribute to a timeless aura that is characteristic of her work.

A detail of a work by Goya

Francisco de Goya, Pato Muerto, 1808–1812

Francisco de Goya, Pato Muerto, 1808–1812

A painting by Charles White, titled Woman in Green Dress, dated 1935

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, First Flight, 2015

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, First Flight, 2015

A detail of a work by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye titled Kingfisher, dated 2011

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kingfisher2011 (detail)

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kingfisher2011 (detail)

A detail of a work by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye titled Kingfisher, dated 2011

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kingfisher2011 (detail)

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kingfisher2011 (detail)

“There is something timeless about painting in oils on canvas.... It feels omnipotent. It feels continuous.... Painting provides me with a language that I can think about, translate, and turn to my advantage.”

—Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

As evidenced by her poetic titles, writing is a central part of Yiadom-Boakye’s practice. As she has explained: “I write about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about.”

In a profile of the artist, Zadie Smith explains how, when asked about the sources of her images, “she tends to answer as a novelist would, citing a potent mix of found images, memory, sheer imagination, and spontaneous painterly improvisation.... From a novelist’s point of view, both the speed and the clarity are humbling. Subtleties of human personality it might take thousands of words to establish are here articulated by way of a few confident brushstrokes.... The canvas is the text.”

An installation view of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's show at Serpentine Galleries, dated 2015

Installation view, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk, Serpentine Galleries, 2015

Installation view, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk, Serpentine Galleries, 2015

“These paintings are mood-pieces of ochre, brown, and black.... The figures maintain a tenuous, flickering existence…. as if they haunt a canvas that can’t quite pin them down.”

—Ratik Asokan, The Nation

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