Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 16, 2017
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Hilton Als, Amira Gad, and Glenn Ligon Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk Exh. cat. London and Wien: Serpentine Galleries and Koenig Books, 2015. 136 pp. Paper £8.00 (9781908617286)
Exhibition schedule: Serpentine Galleries, London, July 2–September 15, 2015

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk was released on the occasion of the British painter’s 2015 solo exhibition at Serpentine Gallery. The compendium features Yiadom-Boakye’s stunning painterly and writerly interrogations of fictional characters and black figures in her paintings, etchings, short stories, poems, and essays, along with texts by artist Glenn Ligon, critic Hilton Als, and the exhibition’s organizer, Amira Gad. Verses After Dusk asks readers and viewers to unravel the conventional architecture around what it means to represent a body in space; to convey personhood in the form of a portrait; and to take on the psychological, cultural, and social worlds in which those figures live. Yiadom-Boakye’s concerns lie in excess of those particularly rehearsed histories or fraught traditions. She invents new faces, lifting source material from anonymous passers-by, found images, and memories both real and imagined. She jumbles them all together to create new ruptures from the figurative tradition.

Gad’s introductory essay contextualizes Yiadom-Boakye’s practice with art-historical weight, situating the artist within a long history of Western figurative oil painters ranging from Rembrandt to Caspar David Friedrich to Édouard Manet. Gad writes: “She [Yiadom-Boakye] intentionally eschews realism in favour of drawing attention to painting’s representational difficulties” (21). It is through literary narrativity that Yiadom-Boakye’s work moves from the fault lines of “modernism’s rejection of realism” (23). Fictions breed new possibilities, according to Gad, for considering a postmodern discourse of the politics of representation and the vestiges of colonialism and imperialism. Shifting gears, Als contributes a personal reflection on the artist’s work. Rather than categorizing Yiadom-Boakye’s painterly intervention as “glitzed-out or empirical-to-counteract-my-oppression portraits of black men and women,” he instead highlights the subtle beauty and sensitivity of her treatment of the figure; they are “roses” more than political deployments (102–103). Included in Verses After Dusk is a new suite of black-and-white etchings of the disembodied heads of young men that makes an unmistakable nod to Rembrandt’s Two Africans (1661), just as they do to J. T. Zealy’s early daguerreotypes of enslaved people in profile. The Western pictorial tradition lingers at the tip of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintbrush, along with Ghanaian folkloric storytelling, iambic pentameter, and bitingly curt prose. All build a psychological intensity of a world of characters to whom readers have a somewhat constrained access. Despite so much opportunity for visual and verbal ekphrasis, readers and viewers find themselves lurking in the cavernous, empty spaces of her words and canvases devoid of graspable meaning and signification. “Too late to start dwelling on the past,” Ligon writes in textual annotations of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings, including 11pm Tuesday (2010). “Go on. Get on with it,” but his words, too, hedge against coherent narrativity:

He is up and dressed, as usual, in his striped top, although it’s really more the idea of a top, a little something to cover his nakedness. Indeed, he is the idea of a black man. He is life-sized and anatomically correct, yes, but when we stare into the whites of his painted eyes or at the skin-tight colour of his thighs, what we see is an illustration accompanying many, many ideas about black men, bits and pieces of things, a mood board, brought together at this late hour, 11pm, which, although the day is nearly done, in fact feels like the beginning of something new. (111)

If the figure, literary and representational, is as pliable as paint, it is also as contingent as sentences ordered and rearranged on a page. Yiadom-Boakye often subjects her figures to constant revision. The reader’s instincts, witnessing the painterly materialization of her subjects’ personhoods, cannot necessarily be trusted. As Kobena Mercer proposes in Travel and See: Diaspora Art Practices Since the 1980s (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), there are cohorts of artists within the diaspora who trouble art history’s presumption of socio-cultural legibility. Looking is not equivalent to knowing. One might see the figure, but Yiadom-Boakye’s imaginary subjects vex and beguile; they cannot be totally possessed. They lead mesmerizingly from all that a viewer wants to, or could, surmise about their outer and inner lives. In this sense, reading Verses After Dusk feels less like a textual experience or recounting of an exhibition, but perhaps more like a raw, voyeuristic encounter with an artist in the studio in the midnight hour. This is the laborious vigor of this book.

Yiadom-Boakye troubles any safe hierarchies between nature and culture; although evident in her carefully rendered paintings, this is especially salient in her experimental storytelling practice. She often writes from the perspective of an omniscient narrator or from the gaze of anthropomorphized animals, not unlike the familiar African and Caribbean folktale of Anansi the spider, where the moral landscape of society is interwoven in a combination of fantastic and human-like verisimilitude. Take “Problems with the Moon,” a ballad poem intruding a world turned topsy-turvy (ships get lost at sea, babies cry unsettled, owls lose their nocturnal sensibilities) after a “rogue” moon is reluctant to illuminate the night sky. In this poem Yiadom-Boakye presents a metaphor of total darkness as an agent of distress: “Darkness” she writes “brought no desire to note and when moonlight washed them they felt nothing” (52). In thinking about Yiadom-Boakye’s painterly practice and her propensity toward dark figures, one cannot help but draw comparisons to her treatment of darkness as both an arbiter and container for marked bodies. She often envelopes her figures in washy grounds of color, creating a kind of porousness for what viewers see as pigment, as flesh, as clothing, or as field. To this effect, her figures appear both precariously present and disappeared, if not for the piercing whites of their eyes or distinctively rendered vestments (Highriser, 2009; and Hightower, 2008). No beginnings and no ends, only glimmers of specificity later compromised by some unsettling pictorial element. This lingering pictorial strategy, limiting individual specificity to sartorial representations and indiscrete bodily gestures, becomes absolutely pivotal in Yiadom-Boakye’s literary prose. Take her narrative poem “The Half-Smile” as an example:

The outfit was, the old lady thought, a little off. Just like her smile. . . . The black chiffon dress, black bolero, black wide-brimmed hat, black stockings, black high heeled shoes, black clutch bag and black fan. The only addition was the black chiffon veil that fell from the rim of the hat. An effective means of concealing the look on her face from all those present at the funeral. Apart from her Grandmother, Who through the chiffon, could clearly make out the Half-Smile. (62–64)

Yiadom-Boakye presents the scene of a somber funeral. The reader expects a growing sympathy for an amiable young woman who had just lost her husband (cause of death left unexplained, of course). However, despite Yiadom-Boakye’s compulsion for narrating every sartorial detail with great description, she withholds the character’s visage. The girl is impossible to behold. Countless details only belabor themselves to reveal the limits of language and gesture in visual and verbal aesthetic experience. Less is still not more; as with her words and paintings, the more colors crowd the field, the more virtuosic the brushstrokes, they still come up short in the beholder’s gaze. Literary and painterly description have long inter-illuminated one another. Yiadom-Boakye denaturalizes what viewers think they know or can know about what creators attempt to represent. It is impossible to know why the girl only smiles half-way. What remains is an uncomfortable and sinister image of a potential murder suspect.

Perhaps the most quietly vexing aspect of Yiadom-Boakye’s stories when considered alongside her paintings is that they create a thinly veiled distinction between the presumed disparateness of humanism and barbarism; they prompt the questions: Who really attains the privilege of unquestionable personhood? Despite the long histories of civilization, aesthetic achievements, and the sophisticated evolution of language and communication, should we be so steadfast in our understanding of what makes us as humans so distanced from the potential ruthlessness of animals? “Crow and Jackdraw” and “Treatment for a Low Budget Television Horror With A Working Title: Dinner With Jeffrey” similarly take visual description such as modes of dress, facial expressions, and exchanges to the point of shocking surprise. Both are short tales that manage to strip humanity into a cannibalistic, bleak outlook. Through the eyes of omniscient, erudite birds, readers are perched as voyeurs peering onto a tragic scene of a drunken woman dying of accidental asphyxiation. The birds are unable to, or, perhaps even more disturbing, unwilling to interfere; one flies into the apartment to steal the jewels around the woman’s strangled neck; another pecks at her dead flesh. “Treatment,” also alarming, is an expedient reversal of the pitfalls of self-interest. Carl, an eager bachelor attends a dinner party hosted by his soon-to-be betrothed. Hoping to become part of her aristocratic English family, he nearly consumes the eyes of his lover’s previous fiancé, Jeffrey, hidden underneath the breaded crust of a ramekin of berry pudding, narrowly escaping his own fate. The artist pens the orality of a call and response, “The truth . . . Everywhere and Nowhere . . . Evil? Nowhere in Particular . . . The Answers, Pass. The End, Not So Important” (55; emphasis in original).

Jessica Bell Brown
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University,