May 17, 2021
A BELATED BREAKTHROUGH, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s mid-career survey “Fly in League with the Night” is the first solo exhibition devoted to a Black British woman artist in the Tate’s history. It’s an appropriate backdrop for the painter’s body of work, whose entrancing portraits of imagined characters, painted from memory, meditate deeply on how history is made and unmade. Below, Yiadom-Boakye discusses her path as an artist and writer, the need to build new places of belonging, and the divine powers of watchfulness.
— Rianna Jade Parker
Rianna Jade Parker: I’ve told everybody that visiting your exhibition was the most relaxed and at peace I’ve felt over the past three-hundred-something days of forced isolation. Even though Tate was emptier than usual—because of social distancing, of course—it felt inhabited thanks to your artistry. I know what a curatorial effort that must have been, and the catalogue is beautiful. I didn’t know you had a writing practice.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: It’s something I never like to admit without clarifying. I never say that I’m a writer to writers. When people ask, “So you’re a writer?” I’ll say: [In a funny voice] “Yeah, you know . . . I’m not a writer but I write.”
RJP: No, I’m going to call it: It’s a writing practice. Some short stories for us, please—soon! How did you choose to include the fiction that is in your catalogue? Five extracts from a detective novel?
LYB: I love detective shows. I love Law & Order. The original ones, and then Criminal Intent is a favorite. I was really interested in setting the scene of the Black detective who was somehow . . . detached, kind of floating above everything. Aloof and an authority. And, so far, I’ve presented it as extracts because it’s not a complete story. I want it to be a longer thing, twisting and turning and arriving at a conclusion of sorts. It is such a different process than painting. I’m used to painting at a fast pace, making decisions more quickly, thinking about texture, color, tone, and composition in relation to the subject of the painting. And if something doesn’t work, it’s normally because the translation is off and I can spot it immediately and either fix it or trash it. I try to do something similar with writing, but I’m a lot slower at it.
RJP: I’ve been thinking about art school—“art school”—and the fact that I learned absolutely nothing there, but also about the ways in which my peers today rely on their creative malleability, with or without valued qualifications. What was art school like for you?
LYB: I am so glad for my time at art school, as much for what I learned about art as for what I learned about people. The focus was really different back then. Because everything was so low-tech, the emphasis was very much on these physical things, these objects, these drawings, these demonstrations of a certain type of ability, of mastery. Which had to do with following a type of training and gaining a technical skill. That was a good thing for me: It was important as a painter to understand the bare bones, the color, the drawing, the composition, etc. But there were other things you had to teach yourself. And it’s a strange and strained environment, often with a lot of dysfunctional systems and structures and people in place. Looking back on certain experiences at Central St. Martins and just how pronounced the racism, sexism, and classism were at times, the insane kinds of interactions I had with certain people—looking back, I just think, God, it barely even occurred to me to question any of it!
Falmouth was a relief—that was the art-school experience I wanted. Being by the sea, free to make and do and be as you pleased. Tutors who quietly encouraged you, quietly challenged you, and had a way of quietly kicking you up the bum if you slacked where they knew you could do better. I mean, it was a crazy place, too. And a crazy time. Again, just that kind of low-tech-living thing; nobody had a phone, the internet was . . . At Falmouth, I could really focus. Getting out of London really helped me to focus in ways that I just couldn’t here.
When I came to the Royal Academy, it was almost like a continuation of Falmouth because although I was back in London, the RA was a tiny community, like a village—full of peculiar practices and notions that also made you feel like you were in The Twilight Zone. The madness of the place was quite wonderful, for the most part. There was some nonsense, but I met some brilliant people too.
RJP: Generally speaking, the highest attainment expected of me is to be a civil servant or clerical help. I’m working on the margins of an industry from which I can be pushed out at any moment, just as Priti Patel would find a way to revoke my British citizenship if she could. What makes a legacy then? A couple of art books? There’s something very particular about the kind of coloniality we’re dealing with in the UK. We’re a bit too grateful for things that are very much owed to us.
LYB: That’s a really important point: this sense of gratitude for things that are actually owed and earned. I think back twenty years and how different it was then. I mean, I look at your generation and the generation after yours as so much more vocal, so much stronger, and there are so many more of you in the space; there’s more activity, and that creates possibility. I think there is only so much you can do within institutions. They’re a part of something much bigger and more powerful, which we actually do have some agency in. And it’s not always about waiting to be invited. I have a seat at the table to a certain degree—it came relatively late, but, luckily, at a point when I’m equipped to handle it. But I’m not as interested in having a seat at the table as I am in having my own restaurant. (I prefer the culinary version of the metaphor to the corporate one!) That’s the energy I want to go forward with. I’ve never cared for this idea of tolerance—when people speak of this country as “tolerant,” I get so mad.
RJP: Mm, same.
LYB: I’m not to be tolerated. Problems are tolerated. I’m not a problem. These issues are not my—our—personal problem. They’re very much the racist’s personal problem, and I’m not qualified to fix it because I don’t have the expertise in being a racist. Are we to channel all of this energy into trying to convince people that we’re human beings? Or do we get on and do what we came here to do? It’s like what Toni Morrison said about the function of racism being distraction, to stop you from doing your work, to keep you explaining. I literally don’t have time. Surely, I think, there’s something magical in what you were saying about having a legacy. I think your legacy is already greater than you know; your work and presence as a critic and thinker have already made a massive impact in spite of the obstacles and the aforementioned “distraction.” I think the fact that we’re here, that I am having this conversation with you, for Artforum—that means a lot to me.
RJP: Thank you, Lynette.
LYB: Because I didn’t have this option twenty years ago. I didn’t have this option ten years ago. I mean, no one was asking me, anyway—least of all Artforum, but still!
LYB: But to be sat here now, having a conversation with a Black female thinker is—it’s really quite emotional. My heart is full because this hasn’t always happened. In this way. A conversation like this, amongst ourselves.
RJP: Could you speak to Ever the Women Watchful, 2017? It serves as my screensaver at least a few times a year.
LYB: It is a recurring theme: The Watching. Women Watching. A Watchfulness. It is a Blacker Watch than most, and there are two Watchers, in contrast to earlier paintings, where there is only one. One Watches with a naked eye; one intensifies the Watch through binoculars for closer scrutiny of the same object/place/person/occurrence/catastrophe/miracle/outrage. Black women Watching, without necessarily intervening, possibly out of detachment, possibly with judgment—keeping their own counsel, as is their right. To be all-seeing and all-knowing and yet elsewhere altogether. Much like the divine.
RJP: I can only be excited by the fact that we have a burgeoning new generation of painters. But it feels like every few months there’s a new Black graduate being pegged by a blue-chip gallery or praised by a proud collector on Instagram. What I’m most concerned with now is how this new valuation is sustained, right? In a similar vein though—and in particular as Black British people—we need to be more discerning and learn how to disagree.
LYB: That’s important to bear in mind. There is room to be all things. But fundamentally it is much richer and deeper than appearances. There is the issue of respect and, going back to what I said earlier, of not being treated as less or different. It really isn’t a big ask, nor a great stretch of the imagination. It’s common sense. If hiring a single Black member of staff and then perpetuating the same dysfunctional, patronizing, and passive-aggressive work environment that drove away the last single Black member of staff is the strategy, we’ll continue to get nowhere! Equality is not an act of charity; it’s for your own damn good, and that of your institution or business. And until people embrace that, they and their galleries, institutions, or companies will keep screwing up and getting called out and then screwing up again. But we’ve been saying this for decades, and we’re tired, aren’t we? And I need to channel my energy away from the crazy and toward the magical. I think that’s where the real changes happen. I’ve got paintings to paint, writing to do, and plenty of people to love.