Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, A Hatred in May, 2020
The subjects ‘happen to be black’, writes Farquharson, and the catalogue is intent on skirting and downplaying the issue, making additional, inexcusable blunders in the process. This is most glaring in two brief references to Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863, a painting invoked as part of the curators’ bizarre effort to situate Yiadom-Boakye in the pre-contemporary western canon (alongside, amongst others, Manet, Francisco Goya, John Singer Sargent and Rembrandt). First, Schlieker discerns a ‘kinship’ between the ‘symphony of greys and whites in the shirt-folds’ in Yiadom-Boakye’s For The Sake Of Angels, 2018, and ‘the two large pillows’ rested on by the nude woman who is the central subject of Manet’s picture. Co-curator of the exhibition Isabella Maidment compares the paintings again, this time observing that the ‘overall palette’ of Yiadom-Boakye’s picture is ‘evocative of the notorious disjuncture between whiteness and blackness in Édouard Manet’s Olympia ’. What this disjuncture is and why it is notorious is left unexplained: the obvious and only significant link between the two pictures is ignored. I can only presume that the notoriety to which Maidment fleetingly refers has something to do with the black maid who appears behind ‘Olympia’, but the curator is so vague on this matter that she may as well only be alluding to the shocking intensity of Olympia’s white flesh against the dullish (blackish) background, which, after all, gained enough notoriety on its own in 19th-century Paris.
This is no ordinary matter of formalist myopia (the connoisseurial judgement of which is far from watertight), but it is deeply revelatory of Tate’s institutional mindset. In an oft-cited 1992/94 essay, Lorraine O’Grady (see Reviews p27) called out Manet’s depiction of the maid (modelled by Laure, whose full name typically has eluded the archive) and the picture’s subsequent reception as representing both the desexualisation and objectification of the black female body, an issue exacerbated by the critical negligence to which she has been subjected in favour of the ‘empowered’ white woman holding centre stage. ‘Forget “tonal contrast”,’ O’Grady writes, ‘We know what she is meant for: she is Jezebel and Mammy, prostitute and female eunuch, the two-in-one […] And best of all, she is not a real person, only a robotic servant.’ In order to avoid the ‘difficult topic’ of race, Tate draws the line at ‘tonal contrast’. The institution thus effects no less than a continuation of the violence inflicted on Olympia’s maid (violence amplified by the fact that the oversight occurs in the context of an exhibition of paintings of black people in a major national institution with colonial origins and seems to have been calculated to assuage racially oriented discourse), violence which, as O’Grady explained, is symbolic of its continued manifestation well beyond the realm of pictures. This same violence is evident in the way Tate seizes on the quietude of Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects, rendering them more mute than they already are (as ‘surface simulacra’), with repercussions for perceptions of the black body in general.
The danger of post-black ideology, Chambers has explained (in an article regarding its propagation in the US), is its ‘fiendish entanglement with postrace ’, t h e 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, in the autumn of Donald Trump’s presidency which, along with the worldwide proliferation of Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, had shattered many liberals’ illusions of post-race. While the Yiadom-Boakye exhibition may have the veneer of an act of racial inclusion, because of its harnessing of post-black, the opposite is closer to the truth. As Chambers observes, post-black is, in effect, a neoliberal policy of exclusion: ‘There is now a post-black authoritarianism that dictates what sort of black artists, and which practitioners in particular, get exposure.’ It would come as no surprise, therefore, that Yiadom-Boakye was the only black artist in Tate Britain’s 2018 group exhibition, problematically titled ‘All Too Human’, focusing on the human figure in 20th- and 21st-century British painting and, to lesser extent, sculpture. Friedrich Nietzsche aside (the title comes from a book of his), the message is clear: because Tate feels it can assimilate her (along with the Goan artist FN Souza) into its monocultural vision of art history – which in this exhibition stands for humanity – she can be included, but as for the rest … Indeed, Tate Britain’s favouring of Yiadom-Boakye signifies a deliberate decision not to show other British black artists whose careers have spanned a much longer period and have without question been far more impactful on art, culture – and politics – in the UK, such as, for instance, those associated with the BLK Art Group such as Sonia Boyce, Donald Rodney or Keith Piper, who emerged in the 1980s. Tate Modern’s forthcoming retrospective of the career of Lubaina Himid, an artist closely involved with this group, might be a step in the right direction, but the institution’s treatment of Yiadom-Boakye – as well as, just as importantly with regard to Himid, its way of skirting the ugliness of colonialism in its ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition – leads me to ask whether the element of critique that is so crucial to Himid’s work will be given the foregrounding it is due, or whether Tate will tap into the theatrical element in order to treat the show as yet another cause for propagandistic celebration and self-congratulation. Why would artists such as those I have cited be overlooked? The reason is simple: their art deals unequivocally with racial politics in a way
Art Monthly no. 446, May 2021