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Fly in League with the Night

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Tate Britain 2 December 2020 – 31 May 2021
Review by Gabriel Gbadamosi

Visiting, in the days before another lockdown for Covid-19, the exhibition Fly in League with the Night, by south London painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, at my local gallery, Tate Britain, just over the river in Pimlico, I came away with two startling reflections. I had just about doubled the number of black people I’d ever seen in oil paintings. And, given that the Tate, which I grew up beside, having a map in my heart of every shrapnel wound it suffered from bomb blasts in the war (look closely at the outer walls, you can see them), and every room in which I first saw art that moved and inspired me – the sugar-related, best-we-can-get-our-hands-on, oh-so-exclusive Tate, which became Tate Britain – never much had people like me either on its walls or among its visitors, I was secretly thrilled at the takeover.

I say ‘secretly’ because who am I gonna tell that for the whole of lockdown those people are going to have the place to themselves – along with the multi-coloured photographs of London’s Year 3 school kids by Steve McQueen in the main Duveen Galleries, and a few other loves and favourites of mine from the permanent collections: an Epstein, a Blake, a Singer Sargent, a Stanley Spencer…? That is an after-party that is going to fly while the building’s dark; and I not only wish I could be there, in my mind, heart and imagination I am there. It’s where I’m writing this review from.

Yiadom-Boakye’s painting has peculiar task with colour. How do you light black skin, given that every person in every painting is black, in paint? You would have to go and see this exhibition before it closes at the end of May 2021 just to see how she accomplishes that. But if you don’t manage to, imagine a green thought in a green shade. Lynette is one helluva painter. Her colours are equal to our living, changing, polychromatic skin colours. We shine. We love. We die.

I don’t like everything, but I’m intrigued by her experiments and I would like to grab and run with  about a third of the paintings, even the ones that are so far out of my league I’d be ashamed to show them the hovel they’d now have to live in. They are the new aristocrats of British painting, expensive and quietly confident. They put us, ordinary black folks, up where we belong, among the greats, in our white socks, pink ties, orange skirts and inner lives.

The art world has fads – and the black, woman artist is up there just now – but the art market is a manipulated rollercoaster and Fly in League with the Night is better than that. Promise me something – you won’t just go by what’s exhibited or what’s just fashionably expensive. You’ll remember that Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is an artist to watch for life, and not only because, as we used to say in south London, She can tell you about yerself. Follow her because her work has broken through into life, and the life that springs from her work is startling.