One of the most important artists working today, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s celebrated body of work continues to redefine the parameters of contemporary portraiture. Painted in 2009, Diplomacy III wrestles with the legacy of the civil rights movement in both the United States and Africa. It belongs to a small series of related works. Diplomacy I is currently installed at the Tate Britain for the artist’s critically acclaimed retrospective, and Diplomacy II is illustrated in its exhibition catalogue, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League with the Night (2020). The present painting made its American debut at the Studio Museum in Harlem’s survey, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Any Number of Preoccupations, in 2010.
In Diplomacy III, a group of important Black figures have gathered together as if to record some momentous historical event. The men wear serious expressions and formal attire, confronting the viewer’s gaze with a knowing yet wary look. An aura of historical importance lingers over the entire scene, and yet the specific identity of each figure is left deliberately vague. This is because Yiadom-Boakye fictionalizes her characters, working from memory and often completing a painting in a single sitting. She describes this process as “making people tangible through paint” (L. Yiadom-Boakye, quoted in T. Golden, “Foreword and Acknowledgments,” Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Any Number of Preoccupations, exh. cat., Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, 2010, p. 4). The result is a familiar, and yet still unrecognizable cast of characters that forces the viewer to scroll through their internal rolodex of important and well-known Black leaders. This process inevitably leads to the civil rights era in America and the African Independence Movement of the 1960s. In fact, the curator Okwui Enwezor has compared the Diplomacy series to photographs of East African leaders at a summit in 1967 taken by photographer Marion Kaplan.
It is perhaps no coincidence that she is evoking this genre with consistently black representations in an endeavor to recalibrate our thinking of art history.”
The chief protagonist in Diplomacy III is undoubtedly the central female figure, who sports a bright pink top and gazes outward toward the viewer with a cautious, sidelong glance. To Enwezor, this is yet another way for Yiadom-Boakye to upset established norms, both from a historical standpoint but also in terms of traditional portraiture: “In these large portraits...the figures are dressed in sharply cut, dark Western suits and ties, with the exception of a Sudanese figure in a flowing white robe...Yiadom-Boakye also inserts a female character in each of the paintings, thus disturbing the all-male club of leaders. The insertion of the female character into the field of power suggests a mild critique of representations of postcolonial heroism in which women play no role…” (O. Enwezor, “The Subversions of Realism,” in Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Any Number of Preoccupations, exh. cat., Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, 2010, p. 30).
The seriousness of Diplomacy III is also at odds with Yiadom-Boakye’s painterly technique, which is deliberately honest and organic. This is especially the case in her depiction of the background, which is conveyed by only a soft, pale blue and light brown for the ground, painted with a wide brush in a few broad strokes. She applies the same technique to the figures’ clothing, especially their white shirt and tie combination, and in rendering their facial features. All of this helps to overthrow the traditional terms of portraiture, an arena that has long been inherently privileged, white and male.
Yiadom-Boakye has compiled a large archive of secondary sources that she draws upon in creating her work. She has often spoken of her childhood memories in South London, spent peering through binoculars to wonder about the identity of her neighbors and inventing fantastical stories for them. In describing the characters in her own work, she has said: “‘Race is something that I can completely manipulate, or reinvent, or use as I want to. Also, they’re all black because...I’m not white” (L. Yiadom-Boakye, quoted in H. Ulrich Obrist, “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist,”Kaleidoscope, No. 15, 2012, p. 102).
From a strictly formal standpoint, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings do share many similarities with traditional European portraiture. The seventeenth century portraits of Rembrandt and Frans Hals are particularly apt, especially the subset of group portraits that celebrate what’s known as “Gezelligheid” or a certain comfort and conviviality amongst its members. These genteel group portraits depict the high-ranking members of Dutch society seated around a table and bedecked in dark velvet robes and bright, white lace collars, who peer outward toward the viewer. “It is perhaps no coincidence that she is evoking this genre with consistently black representations,” the recent Tate Britain catalogue has explained, “in an endeavor to recalibrate our thinking of art history.” (Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night, exh. cat., Tate Britain, 2020, p. 16).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).