On Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Any Number of Preoccupations

Sabo Kpade
MA GAC 2022

The reclamation of black portraiture in western European and American art history is central to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s practice. Exhausting the black color spectrum has also become a career-long obsession that is manifested throughout her prodigious oeuvre. “My filter is always going to be black, female, born in London, raised in London by Ghanaian parents” said the artist in a June 2018 conference festival at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie at Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, Netherlands). “That’s my filter. I see the world as that person.”

The lone figure in Yiadom-Boakye’s Any Number of Preoccupations is sat down and staring out right at the viewer and out of the picture plane of the painting. This has the effect of a panoramic vision regardless of the position from which it is viewed: top left, top right, down left, or down right. His gaze might be unceasing, but it is non-confrontational. He is wearing red, slim-fitted trousers and a long robe of the same color, whose left and right panels fall on opposite sides of the figure’s legs. The robe is also fastened with a thick and knotted rope above the figure’s waistline.

The direction of the figure’s body weight and balance is on the waist, because when sat down, the hips hold up the weight of the upper body. This is emphasized by the folded right hand and fist which is wedged on the waist. A second direction of body weight is the figure’s left leg, over which the right leg is crossed. His left hand is resting on his right leg which adds more weight to the left leg which is planted on the floor. On account of the long robe, trousers, and white underwear, only the figure’s wrists, ankles, neck, and face are exposed.

The figure occupies the central panel of the painting, but he is not exactly in the middle of the picture. This is not at first obvious because on either side of the figure are washes of black and deep brown in near-equidistance to the vertical border of the picture. The figure’s elbow reduces the surface area of the washes on the left panel. The background is a deep black-brown with tints of purple, blush-pink, and cream colors. Subtle color gradations distinguish the vertical wall from the seat and the floor. The loose, white brushstrokes on either side of the figure’s waistline suggest a bale of hay, rather than the solid mass of a chair.

The floor provides a clear break from the wall on account of a color transition behind the figure’s feet, which runs vertically across the lower half of the picture. A sharper shift in color intensity is formed between the blacks on the wall and the lighter wash of white, olive, and brown colors on the floor. The figure’s black hair blends with the black wash of the background. A clear boundary is introduced by the hairline, which transitions from the deep blacks of the hair to the deep brown of the face. The pink used to make the teeth prominent is also used to highlight the face, eyelids, and cheeks.

The majority of the exposed face, wrist and fingers, ankles and feet is dominated by light shades of brown. Faint lines suggest a creased forehead, an impression that is doubled by the slight opening of the figure’s lips, thus creating an expression which, though indeterminate, is not passive or inert. The central plot of facial flesh tones, white vest and red shoulder panels of his robe at the top end of the painting is repeated at the lower end by the subplot of the white slippers, flesh tones, red trousers, and robe.

A black, female artist like Yiadom-Boakye who was raised in London and by Ghanaian parents is bound to work against a specific list of calcified tropes and traditions in Western art history that include depictions of servile black figures and the female nude. Her paintings may betray the hallmarks of portrait painting—be they likeness, dignity, style, or scale—but they are exclusively about black subjects. Her upbringing as a gifted student raised by working class parents has worked productively with her art education at the Royal Academy schools (UK) to disinherit the aspects of art history which, traditionally, have not edified an individual as herself.

Sabo Kpade is the outgoing Art and Design Editor at v.1. He is a writer and curator who specialises in the arts and cultures of Africa and its diaspora in the UK, US and Europe. Sabo is also an art writer for Contemporary & and a content writer for Apple Music Africa. Previously, he worked as a curator at kó Gallery (Lagos, Nigeria) and as a journalist for Media Diversified (London, England), Guardian Newspaper (Lagos, Nigeria) and Okay Africa (New York, US). Sabo is a member of AICA-USA, the United States section of the Association Internationale des Critiques d'Art.