Leah Andelsmith Photos of works installed in the exhibition. All art by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
Against an indistinct background, a man sits at a small, round table. He’s caught in a candid moment, staring with his chin resting on the heel of his palm, daydreaming. His face is relaxed and open; he is at ease and at peace in his space.
The figure is part of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s “Brothers to a Garden,” one of about half a dozen works by the contemporary artist on view through December 15 at the Yale Center for British Art. Part of the Hilton Als series, this tightly-focused exhibition explores what it means for people of color to fully inhabit their humanity.
As an artist, Yiadom-Boakye is interested in “making ‘portraits’ of imaginary people of color living in worlds where they have complete sovereignty”—a heady topic that she captures in tiny, everyday details. It’s in the sense of ease in a figure’s pose. The openness and honesty in a face. The way boldness and gentleness combine in her brush strokes.
At the far end of the gallery, two dancers on oversized canvases face each other in complementary arabesques. From the tip of a pointed toe to the fan of spread fingers, the dancers embody strength and grace. The work’s title, “Harp-Strum,” could refer their surnames, but is also reminiscent of a tight string vibrating with music, like the energy in the body of these dancers.
The brushstrokes in the background around them seem to vibrate in unison behind them, like an aura of movement.
A tiny, dark pool of shadow underneath each dancer is the only detail that places the figures in space. Dressed in green unitards against an undefined, green background, the dancers are completely of their world, a not-yet-formed world where people of color are free to express strength, joy, and vulnerability in any proportion and without judgement.
In Yiadom-Boakye’s domain, quiet introspection is encouraged just as earnestly as joy. In “Amber and Jasmine,” a woman crouches on a mat, gazing downwards, her face thoughtfully in her hand.
Her folded limbs are a foil to the dancers with limbs exuberantly extended on the adjacent wall. She leaves the viewer with questions: Is her jewel-green clothing a bathing suit or a leotard? Is her amber-colored head covering a bathing cap or a head scarf?
Is her expression one of apprehension, or merely deep thought?
The woman in the painting gets to keep those answers to herself, because in Yiadom-Boakye’s universe, Black people “live as human beings, subject to the exigencies of life without being considered symbols of pain, suffering or triumph.” The woman’s thoughts and feelings are hers to inhabit, wholly and unselfconsciously.
This is Afrofuturism, the kind without the high-tech gadgets and shiny clothing. Real people, living out their lives in a world without racism, without oppression, and where the Black experience is centered. These works are pining for the mundane: a time when Black self-determination is an everyday circumstance.
Yiadom-Boakye’s touch as a painter is tender, the expressions she creates honest and real and completely human. In “1pm, Mason's Yard,” a woman sits in an over-stuffed armchair next to a potted plant in bloom. The fabric of the woman’s dress drapes over her lap and spills down beside her legs. Every part of the painting is curved and soft, in shades of cream and mauve and a green that is not quite teal and not quite sage.
One hand drapes casually at the wrist, the other is placed lightly against her cheek. Her expression is peaceful. Or is it melancholy? She’s gazing towards an unseen light source—perhaps the early afternoon sunlight floating through a window—but a dark shadow pools underneath the chair. The shadow anchors the painting and provides a grounding in reality, but also the acknowledgement and embrace of the dark side, of the “exigencies of life”.
The brown floor blends into a grey background in a way that creates an illusion of depth in what is really an abstract wash of color. The woman in “1pm, Mason's Yard" feels real, but the background is flat, and void of the detail that would root the scene in place and time.
The same is true of all the paintings on display in this show. It’s a hint that these worlds are not fully realized yet, that we look towards a precious future, but are not there yet. The feeling catches the echoes of Stevie Wonder’s song “Visions”, 46 years after its recording:
The law was never passed, But somehow all men feel they’re truly free at last. Have we really gone this far through space and time? Or is this a vision in my mind?
The Hilton Als Series: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye runs from now through Dec. 15, 2019 at the Yale Center for British Art, located at 1080 Chapel St. in downtown New Haven. For hours and more information, visit the YCBA's website.