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The mysterious characters of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

There is little doubt that Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is among the greatest portraitists of her generation. Her dreamlike paintings of black figures, which are rooted in Western painting tradition, touch something universal despite their profound originality. The poetry that emanates from them has opened the doors to prestigious institutions around the world, including the Tate Britain. The museum held her biggest retrospective to date in 2020, which will resume in 2022 due to the pandemic. Despite her recent success, the artist started painting at a time where black figurative art was still very confidential, which earned her the status of pioneer in the art world.

When Lynette Yiadom-Boakye started her career as a painter in the late 1990’s, figurative art—especially when it involved black figures—was not on the roll. Back then, abstract and conceptual established white American artists were the unchallenged stars of the market. And yet, she kept painting with the same obsession for ghostly black bodies in dreamlike sceneries years before black artists topped the world’s leading contemporary evening sales.

This $2 million painting holds Boakye's current auction record

The daughter of two Ghanean nurses who came to Britain, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in London in 1977. She showed great interest in art from childhood and decided to pursue it as a career by studying at Central St Martins and the Royal Academy Schools. Despite her prestigious academic background, the young artist struggled to make a living in her 20s and took a series of small jobs to finance her artistic practice. During that time, she refined her painterly vision and chose to represent only black figures from imagination.

The artists talked about this decision in a 2017 conversation with Interview Magazine « I realized early on that painting from life wasn’t something that I was all that invested in. I was always more interested in the painting than I was the people. For me, removing that as a compulsion offered me a lot more freedom to actually paint and think about color, form, movement, and light. There is something very particular to the figures I do have that lifts them away from reality and offers them the kind of power that I am interested in exploring. »

Her painting process is based on improvisation. Indeed, the artist does not have a preconceived idea of what her canvas will eventually look like before starting it. Moreover, she likes to work quickly and often finish a painting within a day. This fast-paced intuitive process gives a spontaneous energy and liveliness to her characters. This feeling is strengthened by her use of earthy colors—ranging from dark brown and red to ochre and forest green—often clashing with touches of white paint on the eyes and smile of her black figures.

Her innovative style slowly raised awareness within the art world from the mid-2000s. In 2010, she was spotted by the famous Nigerian curator and art critic Okwui Enwezor, who organized her first important museum retrospective at Harlem Studio Museum. 2013 was the year of consecration for Yiadom-Boakye, who was a finalist for the Turner Prize and exhibited works in the Central Pavillon at the Venice Biennale. She became internationally renowned, thus paving the way for a new generation of black artists who would take on the art market a few years later.

Last but not least, the prestigious Tate Britain held the artist’s most extensive survey to date in 2020, which was unfortunately cut short due to the pandemic. The mid-career retrospective, which gathered around 70 original works from the early 2000s to the present day, will resume in Fall 2022. This milestone exhibition pushed the artist’s market to new highs recently. As a matter of fact, she broke her auction record—which was already over a million dollars—with a $2 million large-scale painting that sold at Christie’s evening sale in May 2021.

We believe that an even brighter future lies ahead of her, since her male counterparts with the same level of institutional recognition­—the first of whom is Kerry James Marshall—now sell works in the eight-figure range. Marshall, a blue-ship figurative black painter who had a mid-career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 2016, saw his market soar a couple of years following the event. Yiadom-Boakye’s trajectory may well point in the same direction—Funny enough, they also share the same gallery: Jack Shainman. The future will tell.



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