The danger of post-black ideology, Eddie Chambers has explained
(in an article regarding its propagation in the US), is its ‘fiendish entanglement with postrace’, the bogus ‘theory that the United States has transcended racial inequity’, which became especially popular while Barack Obama was US president. This makes it all the more disquieting,
in a way, to see a post-black exhibition after Obama.
that would be considered ‘uncomfortable’ in the firmament of the art establishment. (I wonder if it wasn’t for such reasons that Bear, 1993, described by Rianna Jade Parker as McQueen’s ‘most overt commentary on issues of race, masculinity, and homoeroticism’, was excluded from his 2020 retrospective at Tate Modern.)
The resounding assertion made throughout the exhibition’s catalogue, and in its glowing reception in the press, that Yiadom-Boakye’s ‘style’ continues from – and, they claim, constitutes a break with, even a subversion of – 19th-century ‘moderns’ is not only spurious in itself, but is also an act of this same kind of exclusion amounting to an egregious gesture of neo-colonial oppression. Not only does the exhibition catalogue erase the history of art from c1900 onwards, but, more importantly, it fails to account for the contribution of black artists to this history. It is as if nothing happened between Manet and c2000 and then, all of sudden, Yiadom-Boakye materialised as the first black painter. This goes beyond post-black. This is never-black. This is never-race. This is not saying that we have ‘transcended racial inequity’, this is saying that such inequity never existed. Tate chooses YiadomBoakye to the exclusion of British black artists perceived to be difficult not only because those artists are unabashed about their political engagement, but because they refuse to be extracted from the history of which they and their work are a part; there is no way, for instance, of extracting Barbara Walker’s drawings of her son from the history of police racism in the UK. In other words, those artists will not be subjected to chronopolitics, what Johannes Fabian in his 1983 book Time and the Other described as the denial to the Other of a place in the contemporary world.
Jean Fisher has written: ‘Genuine inclusion requires an institutional mindset prepared to reconfigure British society in a multicultural way, in effect a redistribution of power’; otherwise, she goes on, what we see is ‘hegemonic containment’. Yiadom-Boakye is irresistible to Tate because the institution finds her
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, No Need of Speech, 2018, installation view, ‘Fly In League With The Night’, Tate Britain easy to contain, as seen in this exhibition and in ‘All Too Human’. It is significant that Fisher was writing with reference to ‘The Other Story’, a landmark exhibition curated by the Karachi-born artist Rasheed Araeen (Interview AM413), which opened at the Hayward Gallery in 1989 (Reviews AM 133). The express purpose of this exhibition was ‘to demonstrate and legitimise the suppressed history of a modernist aesthetic among British visual artists of African, Caribbean and Asian ancestry’ (I should add here that it was wildly remiss of Tate to exclude Araeen’s work from ‘Artist and Empire’, given his vital role in uniting and exhibiting artists from the Commonwealth who otherwise struggled to gain admittance into the art establishment). But in all this there was an awkward paradox in ‘the implied desire for inclusion in and approbation from a system regarded at the outset as unjust and corrupt’, hence there was the need, identified by Fisher, for social reconfiguration that would allow genuine inclusion to occur. The exigency to which Fisher refers thus goes far beyond the issue of who to include and who to exclude. Social reconfiguration must penetrate the institutional mindset; it calls for critical engagement with the difficult, contextual problematics underlying any exhibition of the historically racialised body in an institution such as Tate Britain, without which all an exhibition such as this one can amount to is a show of colour-coded managerialism.
It has not been my intention here to ‘cancel’ Mr Tate, but the relation that this country’s history has to the local and global present – not unlike the relation between the psychic and the social – is fraught, violent, unctuous and forever impure. As Dan Hicks, curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, urged in his recent book The Brutish Museums (Reviews AM443), it is the responsibility of museums to acknowledge this impurity, and I would add that this goes for all national institutions of such stature as Tate Britain, regardless of how much they have to do with the histories of extractive colonialism. And by acknowledge I do not mean tokenistic notices of goodwill or sympathy (or webpages saying, ‘Yes, we know, but…’), but considered, self-reflexive critical engagement. Denial amounts to a continuation of colonial violence, and Tate’s disingenuous co-option of the black body seen here amounts also to the kind of biopolitical and chronopolitical manipulation that is at the unrelenting heart of such violence. Tate has found in Yiadom-Boakye a gift for its own – and by proxy, this country’s – agenda of self-absolution, and even if the whitewash wears thin, the damage this does, through the lies it upholds, is lasting. The spectre of Olympia’s maid haunts every room. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition ‘Fly in League with the Night’ continues at Tate Britain, London to 31 May. Tom Denman is a writer based in London.
Art Monthly no. 446, May 2021