This Artist Reclaims Black Lives in Classical Paintings

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.

This Artist Reclaims Black Lives in Classical Paintings