that produces the images is shut off from the outside world; on a rudimentary level, it presupposes a clear distinction between the mind in which the images are imagined and the body which converts them into paintings. How can they be ‘entirely imagined’ if they’re also painted?
There is, however, a deliberate reason for this strange insistence that Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects materialise on the canvas by some kind of unmediated leap. As long as Yiadom-Boakye’s works are understood as having been produced in a vacuum, they can be contained as such, and the exigency of socio-political contextualisation can be ignored. It is clear that Tate uses ‘entirely imagined’ to account for the work’s apparent embrace of post-black, which Eddie Chambers has defined as an ideology paradoxically encompassing ‘art that seeks to undermine the role of race within black artists’ practices and yet also explore the black experience’. Tate quotes YiadomBoakye as saying, ‘I was always more interested in the painting than I was in the people’ and that she is ‘resisting a stereotype’ – but without explaining, or even asking, why she paints people in the first place or delving into the issue of racial stereotyping. In 2006, the Birmingham-based black figurative artist Barbara Walker produced a series of portraits of her son on backgrounds made of digitally enlarged ‘stop and search’ tickets that the police had issued to him after they’d stopped and searched him on numerous occasions just because he fitted a racial stereotype; not only are the drawings themselves profoundly moving, but they counteract a dehumanising – and stereotyping – official procedure by inserting a human face, the face of her son, that ‘defaces’ this procedure. Is Tate trying to imply (via Yiadom-Boakye) that such art as Walker’s, by being overtly political (as well as highly personal), in fact sustains racial stereotypes? We may never know for sure, as Tate would rather leave the ‘difficult’ issue alone, but the absence of intellectual rigour on such matters (precisely because they are difficult) arouses the suspicion that there is only a certain type of black artist the institution is willing to represent.
Tate might claim that Yiadom-Boakye does not wish to be ‘labelled’, as it did in response to Oscar Murillo’s expression of annoyance at the way Frank Bowling had been de-politicised in the institution’s retrospective of the latter’s 60-year career in 2019 (Bowling himself had stated, ‘It turns out it’s going to be a Tate show and not mine’); but this does not give automatic licence to the institution to use the artist as a pawn for its own utopian-propagandising, which is itself equivalent to an act of labelling – interpellative, dehumanising racial labelling of the kind theorised by Frantz Fanon (indeed, it puts a ‘white mask’ on a ‘black face’) – in terms that suit the institution to the detriment of the artist. It is what Sarat Maharaj called ‘multicultural managerialism’, in other words ‘control by fixing difference into static components of cultural diversity’. There is no arguing away the racial politics of this exhibition: if any artist paints black figures and those figures are exhibited at Tate Britain, there is no way that anyone can then say with any plausibility that the work doesn’t concern black politics. The political voice of the work might be quiet, but that of the institution could not be louder. Given this fact, Tate’s reluctance to engage with race and the problematics of exhibiting subjects historically subjected to racialised categorisation in an institution with imperial origins – while still exploiting such categorisation as moral capital for its own propagandistic agenda – strikes as being all the more deceitful. It is crucial that such subjects are permitted to hold their own, that they are at least given a chance to speak for themselves, even if their voice were to manifest as an active refusal to speak. But Tate would rather deprive them of this right and do all the speaking for them.
Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects inhabit a para-imaginary realm. They possess a certain quietude or even muteness, which their often larger-than-life scale, even when they are laughing or singing, manages to amplify. If we do get to hear their voice, we hear their breath and heartbeat. Perhaps her subjects are meant to enact what Fred Moten calls ‘refusal of what has been refused’ (and thus their quietude would be equivalent to a refusal to assimilate themselves into any objective standard of blackness at the bidding of institutional power); or Édouard Glissant’s notion of ‘opacity’, signifying the withholding of the self lest it be absorbed into the dominant power’s strategic or ideological agenda. Tate, though, has gone out of its way to preempt these effects, taking the quietude of YiadomBoakye’s subjects as express permission to speak on their behalf. Hence curator Andrea Schlieker is ever so keen to underscore the figures’ ‘respite’, ‘restraint’, ‘even temperament’, ‘quiet conviviality and contemplation’, ‘empathy’, ‘lassitude’, that they are ‘doing nothing’ and, best of all, that Yiadom-Boakye ‘posits tranquillity as a form of resistance, serenity as meaningful act’. Since when has tranquillity (which seems here to be cast in opposition to nonviolent protest), or doing nothing for that matter (unless in the form of a sit-in or labour strike, neither of which this is), ever worked as a form of resistance? Am I sensing an underhand rebuke to the Black Lives Matter movement?
Achille Mbembe, much of whose philosophy has explored the biopolitics of blackness, has written: ‘To produce Blackness is to produce a social link of subjection and a body of extraction, that is, a body entirely exposed to the will of the master, a body from which great effort is made to extract maximum profit .’ This is what’s happening here: reduced to bare life, or what Mbembe calls ‘surface simulacra’, YiadomBoakye’s bodies become iconographic grist for Tate’s ideological mill.
There is, however, a deliberate reason for this strange insistence that Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects materialise on the canvas by some kind of unmediated leap. As long as Yiadom-Boakye’s works are understood as having been produced in a vacuum, they can be contained as such, and the exigency of socio-political contextualisation can be ignored.
Art Monthly no. 446, May 2021