Emerging from the ether of her surroundings, Yiadom-Boakye’s subject seems to emit a phosphorescent glow, vibrating the space around her as she stands perfectly still in the center of the composition. In completing No Words of Gratitude, the artist first laid down a sienna underpainting, delineating the form of her figure, before applying lashings of mossy greens, subdued reds, and tonal variegation of a quiet and cool brown for her skin. This underpainting peeks through at the peripheries of the imaginary subject’s form, giving her a sense of luminous ethereality and calling attention to the artist’s process. Without cartesian geometry to ground her figure, Yiadom-Boakye uses this halo-like aura and interior glow to reinforce the dimensionality of her subject, as well as her centrality in the narrative implied in the title of the work.
Trained to paint from live models, Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects are pulled from her imagination, each a conflation of experiences, memories, and art history. The figure is carved out of the composition in sturdy broad strokes, recalling the brusque paint application of Manet, while her serene balletic posture, clasped hands, and confident outward gaze suggests Degas’ Little Dancer Aged 14. More than an amalgam of nineteenth-century European painting, No Words of Gratitude is both a rigorous formal exercise and renegotiation of race and pictorial representation. Placed at the exact vertical center of the composition, the imaginary sitter’s form is a compositional device which divides the canvas into halves. This geometry bespeaks an interest in notions of color and form that have as much to do with abstraction as they do figuration. Giving insight into her process, Yiadom-Boakye explains: “Everything’s a composite. I work from sources. I make scrapbooks, I make drawings, and collect things that I might use later, so they are all very literal compositions in the way that I pull things together. A lot of that decision-making happens on the painting itself. In each case it’s a negotiation of how I want each figure to fill the space.” (The artist in conversation with Antwaun Sargent, "Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Fictive Figures," Interview Magazine, May 2017)
Despite the influence of formalist thought in the development of Yiadom-Boakye’s works, content and subject matter are paramount to their significance in the landscape of painting today. Centering on subjects of African descent, her oeuvre is a nuanced insertion of black figures into a primarily white, hegemonic tradition of painting. Allowing insight into the conceptual framework for her practice, Yiadom-Boakye has said: “Maybe I think more about black thought than black bodies. When people ask about the aspect of race in the work, they are looking for very simple or easy answers. Part of it is when you think other people are so different than yourself, you imagine that their thoughts aren’t the same. When I think about thought, I think about how much there is that is common” (Ibid.) Yiadom-Boakye’s focus on universal notions of interiority and the nuances of the cerebral are translated through a lens which is trained on blackness. In the act of depicting “black thought,” the artist crafts a sense of intimacy by building avenues to access that internal monologue.
Poised and erect, the imaginary character is caught in the moment before the act. Describing the artist’s work, Charmaine Marie Branch explains: “With bold brushstrokes, Yiadom-Boakye has placed the figure in ambiguous surroundings with an atmospheric quality. Familiar yet foreign, the dreamlike location [they inhabit] suggests endless potential actions to follow the moment depicted.” (Charmaine Marie Branch in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, Museum of the African Diaspora (and travelling), Black Refractions: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2019, p. 223) With an uncanny ability to forge narrative and mood in her painting, Yiadom-Boakye’s evocative works have made her a finalist for the Turner Prize and earned her the honor of representing Ghana in the 2019 Venice Biennale. Furthermore, Yiadom-Boakye is being honored with a major survey of her works at the Tate Britain in 2020, a monographic exhibition timed to coincide with an international initiative designed to draw attention to female artists. An exceptionally elegant example from her celebrated body of work, No Words of Gratitude invites and denies access, occupying the border between the established canon and a productive unknown.
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