Manick Govinda talks to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye about her practice and the impact of awards from deciBel and The Arts Foundation.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in London in 1977. She studied at Central Saint Martins School of Art 1996-97, Falmouth College of Art 1997-2000 and the Royal Academy Schools 2000-03. She began exhibiting her paintings in 2001 in group shows, and was selected for John Moores 23 and Bloomberg New Contemporaries both in 2004. She says that she became interested in art by default. I had always been interested in art but wasnt sure that I could make a career out of it. In fact, Im still not sure I can make a career out of it. I was going to be a writer and/or optician. I had to rule out the optics because science was a problem. Then I did an art foundation, followed by a BA, followed by a MA and after that it is hard to become an optician.
Yiadom-Boakye combined her painting with part-time work in order to fund her practice, but in the spring of 2005 she decided to throw caution to the wind and work full time as an artist concentrating on making and selling work.1 She reached a turning point in her career in 2006 when she received a Painting Fellowship from The Arts Foundation and won a deciBel Visual Arts Award.
Yiadom-Boakyes medium is oil painting: I like the decadence of oil paint. I like decadence in general.2 She also draws, but the drawings are usually studies for her paintings. Her paintings are portraits, but they are not representations of actual individuals. Instead they are a composite of her imagination and of people in real life. In 2004, Adrian Searle described her portraits as a cast list of grinning Grammy winners, a self-satisfied towel-robed hunk, a ditzy middle-aged woman, comfortable in her body and with a shocking red bra. But the paintings arent merely humorous black stereotypes. They are painted with a loose and disbelieving swagger that seems to comment both on the characters of her subjects and what we might want from portraiture in the first place ... Seeing Yiadom-Boakyes work for the first time was like a punch in the stomach. Her paintings have a raw edginess, but a lot of sophistication and complications in them. And complications are the best thing a young artist can have.3
Sally OReilly in her review of Yiadom-Boakyes solo show at Gasworks, London in 2007 had this to say: The influence of European portraiture on Yiadom-Boakye is obvious, although she doesnt necessarily draw from life and often invents characters or paints them in series. The tactility of the brushstrokes predominate over such defunct ideas as true likeness, and backdrops are left unspecified, like atmospheric vacuums. Such neutrality quells the politics of representation somewhat, with the all-black sitters seeming less a case of cultural reclamation than simply matter of fact, and pulls focus towards the almost rhythmic glances and stares that pass between them.4
Her early paintings are life-size haunting portraits that fix you with a piercing stare, figures that are sinister, seductive, sexual, eccentric and larger than life. Her more recent paintings have discarded the mythic and theatrical in favour of closer portraits, smaller, more intimate, relaxed and serene.
The Arts Foundation
When asked about her nomination for, and success in being awarded an Arts Foundation Fellowship of £10,000 in 2006, she replies amusingly that I received an email out of the blue. The letter had gone to the wrong address. Kate Bush [currently Head of the Barbican Art Gallery in London] nominated me. I think she saw my work when selecting New Contemporaries in 2004. It was a big and wonderful surprise. You dont well, I dont seriously expect to win something like that. I was stunned. I would have worn better clothes and written an acceptance speech thanking everyone from God to the neighbours cat. Ive always wanted to do that. I was, to put it lightly, very happy.
The award changed her life; One really doesnt expect to be given thousands of pounds and told to get on with it so it is always hard to plan ahead. Being able to work without having to worry about how the rent will be paid allows you to take risks. I was able to make mistakes and some truly dreadful work always a good thing to do. I used the time as research time. Also the money enabled me to travel, most notably to Madrid and Paris.
deciBel Visual Arts Awards
Also in 2006, Yiadom-Boakye received more good news when she was awarded a £30,000 Artsadmin-deciBel Visual Arts Award, an initiative of the national office of Arts Council England. Was there any coincidence in gaining two significant awards so closely to each other? The deciBel award came at the end of the Arts Foundation Fellowship. Im not sure the selectors for deciBel knew about the fellowship when they first considered me for deciBel. They might have done but Im not sure that knowing would have spurred them on to give me the award. Perhaps it did, like backing a horse. I honestly dont know how decisions get made. I dont want to know how decisions get made. It takes the joy out of it, like seeing the pilot of the plane youre on. It is fair to say that, amongst other things, I have been very lucky.
Yiadom-Boakye is clearly modest about her talent as a painter. The rewards and recognition, from being selected for New Contemporaries in 2004 to The Arts Foundation and DeciBel Awards in 2006, are the results of hard work, a strong sense of discipline, a driven artistic vision and a uniquely personal approach to portraiture. Is there any progression in her paintings? I think that my painting progresses, then regresses, then progresses and so on. I used to get very frustrated when work didnt work out. But Ive come to realise that it is a part of it. If I knew exactly what I was doing I would have quit by now. I do a lot of things that I dont like and some things that I do like. Yiadom-Boakye is content with painting as her medium and has no burning desire to explore other media, I have urges to do other things not all of them art related but none so strong as that to paint. Having said that I am working on an etching project at the moment. It is good to work with something new.
Since receiving the awards, Yiadom-Boakyes participated in a number of strong exhibitions many of which are the fruits of the time and space that the awards have given her. Furthermore, two exhibitions were a direct result of two judges discovering her work through the deciBel selection process. The years 2006-07 were busy for Yiadom-Boakye. Shortly after receiving the deciBel award, she was preparing for a show at the Royal Academy schools gallery, a large space in Hornsey. I had decided not to work specifically towards this show but simply to work and select from what I had when the time came. This would also afford me the chance to assess the work so far, outside of the studio and get feedback from others. I had no plans to show elsewhere for some time, wanting to concentrate on developing different ideas and not have the distraction of working towards any other exhibitions. But, towards the end of August 2006 I was asked by one of the deciBel judges, Okwui Enwezor, to participate in the Seville Biennial that October. In addition, I had been asked to do a group show at Arquebuse, a commercial gallery in Geneva, in early November.
Participating in three exhibitions so close to each other would have been a pressurising moment for many artists, but for Yiadom-Boakye they provided perfect opportunities to see her work, both new and old, outside of her studio in very different spaces and contexts. She was able to see very clearly what was working and what was weak. She felt the Hornsey space swamped the work: it was huge and I had mis-judged the scale within the paintings in relation to that space. The work had little of the power it seemed to wield in the studio. This made me realise that much of that power came both from the figures appearing to fill and command the space they were hung in, and from the rich surfaces in the pieces. These, relative to earlier work, seemed barely there. The handling was thin and washy and the figures looked more like apparitions than people and therefore into the realms of historical parody. Yiadom-Boakye possesses a self-reflection and criticality that helps her to constantly question her work, push it further and take risks. She felt the Seville Biennial was a great moment. Much of the work there was on loan from private collections and I hadnt seen it for many years. I was surprised that I still liked it. The best thing about the show was seeing my work alongside so many brilliant artists from around the world, many of them unfamiliar. The [solo] shows at Gasworks and Arquebuse last year  featured work I had developed as a series and I was very happy with both shows.
Yiadom-Boakye is represented by a young commercial gallery, Arquebuse, based in Geneva. When asked if she is commercially successful, Yiadom-Boakye responds again with humour, People buy work from time to time. Im not really involved with that aspect of things. It is good to leave the business side of things to people who know what they are doing. Maths is not my strong point!
This year, Yiadom-Boakye is exhibiting in a group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. Aside from that I have no firm plans for the foreseeable future. I need time in the studio for now. It is great to be busy but nice not to always be thinking about deadlines.
1 The Arts Foundation Website: www.artsfoundation.co.uk/fellows_archive.html
2 Adrian Searle, Picture Perfect, The Guardian, Tues 30 November 2004: arts.guardian.co.uk/newbritishtalent/story/0,,1362667,00.html
3 Adrian Searle, Picture Perfect, The Guardian, Tues 30 November 2004: arts.guardian.co.uk/newbritishtalent/story/0,,1362667,00.html
4 Sally OReilly, Time Out, Tues 26 June 2007: www.timeout.com/london/art/events/428329/lynette_yiadom-boakye.html
Manick Govinda is Head of Artists Advisory Services at Artsadmin where he is also a producer. Govinda has developed many schemes for supporting artists and has worked as a producer for Zarina Bhimji, Franko B and Zineb Sedira. He is a Trustee of Wysing Arts and a non-executive director of a-n The Artists Information Company.
First published: a-n.co.uk May 2008
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