Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night (Tate Britain, Nov. 2022 – Feb. 2023)

Detail of the oil painting "Tie the Tempest to the Trojan" (2016), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. A man with African heritage is shown reclining on a bed, leaning on his right arm as he stares out from the canvas. He is naked from the waist up. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

“At Ease As The Day Breaks Beside Its Erasure
And At Pains To Temper The Light
At Liberty Like The Owl When The Need Comes Knocking
To Fly In League With The Night.”

– Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Entrance to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s solo exhibition at Tate Britain, featuring an enlarged image of “A Bounty Left Unpaid” (2011). Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

There are some days when I just feel compelled to be in an exhibition space, fully immersed in a thought-provoking and emotionally engaging selection of contemporary visual artworks, and nothing else will do. Thursday afternoon (February 2nd, 2023) was one of those occasions, and my setting of preference turned out to be Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s remarkable solo show, “Fly in League with the Night” (Tate Britain, 24 November 2022 – 26 February 2023).

Oil painting showing two young girls playing on the beach, looking down at the sand, with the child on the right dipping her right foot into a puddle of of water.
Condor and the Mole (2011), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, displayed at Tate Britain in the solo exhibition “Fly in League with the Night.” Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Having viewed a wide selection of works by Yiadom-Boakye in her mesmerising solo showcase “Verses After Dusk” at the Serpentine Gallery in 2015, I already anticipated being drawn back into imaginative worlds of wonder, immense beauty, poignancy, sensitivity and alternative approaches to figuration, ad infinitum. I was not disappointed, and spent several hours engaging with an expansive selection – curated by Andrea Schleiker (Director of Exhibitions, Tate Britain) – displayed throughout eight spacious rooms in the large exhibition area east of the Duveen sculpture galleries at Millbank.

The facial expressions and gestures of all the figures in Yiadom-Boakye’s oil paintings offer viewers entry points into imaginary life narratives behind each enigmatic smile, contemplative look or faraway gaze. For example, in the works Alabaster for Infidels (2019) and Dangle the Keys to a Kingdom (2022) the full-length figure of a flexibly graceful male dancer – potentially the principal (but we’ll never really know!) – is represented performing graceful balletic movements.

Oil painting of a male ballet dancer with African heritage, positioned in a graceful pose, 'en pointe' with one leg raised behind and being clasped by his right hand, and the left arm held above his head. An audience of onlookers view his movements from below.

Whether taking a knee or striking an impressive relevé, en pointe, each elongated limb is stretched to its fullest extent. The gestures of a dancer painted on the periphery of one scene suggest an attempt at courting the attention of distracted, darkly-clad peers who are gathered together nearby in a relaxed group, set against a white background (as depicted in “Alabaster…”). In a more theatrically staged setting, the central dancing figure is represented posing and ‘voguing,’ dressed in a peacock-bold costume of bright purple and green, absorbed in the moment – yet seemingly still aware of the admiring stares of the onlooking public, painted in more conventional spectatorial positions gazing up from below (as shown in “Dangle the Keys to a Kingdom”).

Nightjar (2022), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

Continuing the theme of bird-like plumage, other artworks in the exhibition featured single-figure fictional characters wearing wide ruff collars that appeared to be fashioned from necklaces of artificial boa-style feathers – as shown in the captivating painting Nightjar (2022) and a related work from a decade earlier, A Passion Like No Other (2012) – the latter chosen as one of Tate Britain’s promotional poster images for the exhibition because of its symbolic associations with flight.

“A Passion like no Other” (2012), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, used as Tate Britain’s primary media image for Fly in League with the Night. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

Some of the most engaging compositions featured pairs of characters absorbed in each others company (sometimes shown as close friends enjoying food or a smoke together in a relaxed and casual domestic setting or, on other occasions, showing more formally dressed pairings of colleagues and dignitaries clinking champagne flutes, etc).

Alternative group scenes featuring three or more figures were also on view, foregrounding characters that ranged from bare-chested youths at the beach, through to officials (predominantly men in dark suits, with one colurfully noticeable exception) standing side-by-side as if waiting to have a conference summit photo.

An oil painting depicting four bare-chested young men with African heritage in their mid-teens, dressed in black casual trousers, standing together. The outdoor setting appears to be a beach scene. All appear focused on each other in a quietly amusing conversation.
Amaranthine (2018), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Oil paint on linen. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.
Oil painting of a group of officials posing for a conference photograph. Most are men with African heritage dressed in dark suits. One woman dressed in a pink jumper stands out as the only female in the gathering.
Diplomacy I (2009), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Oil paint on linen. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Despite knowing that every figure in Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s oeuvre is a fictitious character created by her from a rich pool of visual stimuli and imagined dreamscapes, the style and dynamism of her imagery brings these figures to life and transforms the paintings into vivid tableaux of social and cultural relations.

Gallery images (clockwise, from the top left): Carol Ann Dixon, Ph.D. at the entrance to Fly in League with the Night, Tate Britain, February 2023. Detail from: “Penny For Them” (2014); “In Lieu of Keen Virtue” (2017); and the paired figuration “Confidences” (2010). Exhibition photos: Carol Ann Dixon.

“I learned how to paint from looking at painting and I continue to learn from looking at painting. In that sense, history serves as a resource. But the bigger draw for me is the power that painting can wield across time.”

– Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Ask the Artist: Questions for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. A Tate film, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies (Duration: 6:14 minutes).

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s “Fly in League with the Night” continues at Tate Britain through to 26 February 2023.

Further reading on Museum Geographies:
Carol Ann Dixon (2015) “Verses After Dusk” – A Solo Exhibition by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Serpentine Gallery, London.

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