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Contained: Exhibiting Blackness

Barbara Walker, I can paint a picture with a pin, 2006

Barbara Walker, Polite Violence III, 2006

Art is not made in a social and political vacuum, argues Tom Denman, nor can it be exhibited in a ‘para-imaginary realm’ or, as in the case of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Tate retrospective, as if we live in a ‘post-black’ era in which race is no longer an issue. Tate Britain would have us believe that its retrospective of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s brief career to date is politically no different from any other exhibition held at the museum since its foundation in 1897. ‘We live in a post-black world,’ the institution seems to be saying, ‘race isn’t really a thing; it probably never has been.’ It is as if black bodies had always been fairly represented on the walls of the building that black labour (by proxy of the transatlantic sugar trade) helped to build; as if the British-Ghanaian painter’s ‘para-portraits’ – to use Okwui Enwezor’s term referring to the way they depict ‘fictive’ as opposed to ‘real’ sitters – enacted a seamless continuity from the real portraits in the galleries across the hall, portraits that are, needless to say, the faces of Britain’s colonial past. ‘Fly In League With The Night’, as Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition is titled, is remindful of Tate’s mollified portrayal of colonialism in its ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition of 2015–16 (Reviews AM393) in that the whitewash wears thin. Why? There is an uncanny absence of conflict and an unwillingness to face up to the harsher realities of the UK’s past and their repercussions in the present and future. All this is in accordance with the myth of self-absolution and moral purity that the institution is trying to sell.

I could feel Tate’s rhetorical orchestration kick in before I entered the exhibition, in the stripped-back, wide-arched neoclassical hall, redesigned by architects Caruso St John 2007–13, which is aimed at establishing an atmosphere of atemporal neutrality. If the sense of universalism isn’t embedded enough in the architecture, it is felt strongly in Sir Steve McQueen’s Year 3, 2019, installed along the walls flanking the exhibition entrance – or at least in how we are encouraged to view the work, which consists of 3,128 class photographs of children between the ages of seven and eight taken in schools across London. The almost unanimous praise afforded Year 3 renders the work as a kind of celebratory feel-good statement, which is exactly how Tate wants us to think of it: everything’s fine, everyone’s smiling, life is beautiful etc. To no small extent the work is indeed a statement of hope, and a very affecting one at that, but as the Marxist ‘philosopher of hope’ Ernst Bloch argued, ‘the essential function of Utopia is a critique of what is present’. And in fact, McQueen’s work, once we ignore the publicity, is efficacious because it does provide such a critique. As Jes Fernie (Letters AM433) has pointed out astutely, ‘Tate says the work is a hopeful portrait of children who will shape the future, but you could draw a circle around the small number of kids who will get a chance to shape that future.’ McQueen’s ‘anticipatory illumination’ is set in real circumstances which he doesn’t try to hide.

I thought perhaps Yiadom-Boakye would effect a similar kind of critique, that somehow the claim that her subjects were ‘entirely imagined’, as Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson put it, was not as ontologically tenuous as it sounded and would lend the works a certain ungraspable – even fugitive – quality, that they would exist in a dimension both of and against the exhibitionary complex. But instead of such critique what I saw was assimilation, founded on the fact that ‘entirely imagined’ is an impossible proposition. Indeed, to claim that the subjects are entirely imagined is to wrongheadedly presume that the faculty of the mind

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Art Monthly no. 446, May 2021

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