This Artist Reclaims Black Lives in Classical Paintings

By
Willow Strip, 2017. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Oil on linen, 78 3/4 x 70 7/8 in (200 x 180 cm). Photo: Marcus J leith Photographer/Marcus J Leith

Though British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s rich oil paintings embody many of aspects of classical European portraiture, they’re nothing like the work of those artists. In her paintings, Yiadom-Boakye turns the historic style on its head by depicting fictional black characters in lieu of old white men. The exhibition “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-Song for a Cipher,” on view now at the New Museum, showcases a new series of Yiadom-Boakye’s oil paintings that evoke a centuries-old European feel, but tell a completely different story.

The fictional characters depicted in “Under-Song for a Cipher” are not just a creative decision, but a political one as well. While attending a predominantly white art school, Yiadom-Boakye said she realized what it meant to be black in a white world. She channeled the experience into her work, using a style of painting that didn’t necessarily depict black people to give them visibility. Her decision to paint her subjects with darker skin is both a nod to her West African roots and a response to her experience in art school.

“In a moment of racial tension like the one America has been living through, Lynette’s characters take on a completely different weight and presence,” the New Museum’s artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni, told Vogue. “It’s hard not to feel implicated as a viewer — I can’t help thinking that her imagined characters are engaging with me.”

Click ahead to see paintings from the show, on view until September 3.

Photo: Marcus J Leith

Of All The Seasons, 2017.

Oil on linen, 43 1/2 x 23 7/8 in (110.5 x 60.5 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

A Conflagration, 2017.

Oil on linen, 78 3/4 x 98 3/8 in (200 x 250 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

Willow Strip, 2017.

Oil on linen, 78 3/4 x 70 7/8 in (200 x 180 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

Tawny Owl, 2017.

Oil on linen, 35 5/8 x 27 3/4 in (90.5 x 70.5 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

The Much-Vaunted Air, 2017.

2017. Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 51 1/4 in (200 x 130.5 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

Brothers To A Garden, 2017.

Oil on linen, 59 1/8 x 47 1/4 in (150 x 120 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

In Lieu Of Keen Virtue, 2017.

Oil on linen, 78 3/4 x 51 1/8 in (200 x 130 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

Light Of The Lit Wick, 2017.

Oil on linen, 79 1/8 x 51 3/8 in (201 x 130.5 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

Carve A Corpse For Care, 2017.

Oil on linen, 78 3/4 x 51 1/4 in (200 x 130.5 cm).

Photo: Marcus J Leith

A Leant Hand, 2016.

Oil on linen, 19 3/4 x 17 7/8 in (50.5 x 45.5 cm).

This Artist Reclaims Black Lives in Classical Paintings