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.