I am travelling on a night bus through the university town in which I am resident, and as we wind through the mid-winter mist which descended just after midnight, a conversation begins with the only other passenger.
We look at some books of Sufi poetry I have borrowed from the library and he starts to tell me about his childhood in Iran, his Islamic upbringing, and how he lost his faith when he started to study theoretical physics. He doesn’t consider himself a practicing Muslim, but often still prays, to a God, and has started meditation. After one intense meditation, an Indian technique whose name I don’t catch, he experienced what is called – his face looms up, across the bus aisle, close to mine, his eyebrows are sincerely raised – astral projection: his mind became free from his body; did not altogether depart from it, but remained, like a balloon rubbing up against the ceiling, ’not far, but far‘. He is no longer certain that physics, the science of bodies, has an answer for everything.
There is a history of uncertainty – theorised for mathematics by Werner Heisenberg, scattered as words across a white page by Stéphane Mallarmé and the poets of free verse, drawn out in the indeterminacies of modernist abstraction and reclaimed for portraiture by Francis Bacon – the power and significance of which are newly realised in the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, in whose paintings uncertainty is manifest as a dialectic of light and darkness. The artist, born to British-Ghanaian parents in 1977, has produced a body of work more interesting – to this viewer at least – than any other painter of her generation. She has won various lucrative prizes, has high-profile exhibitions in New York, London, and Cape Town, and her paintings now sell for many thousands of pounds. This success is unquestionable according to the logic of contemporary art, but her paintings guard an uncertainty which troubles our attention, prohibits easy conclusions about what they mean, and may prove to be critical to the work’s unsettling power. Consider the painting Oyster (below):
The subject of this painting is a body presented to the viewer as an arrangement of dark areas wrapped in the brushstrokes of a whitish dressing-gown. The body is delineated thickly against the dirty off-whites of the back wall and floor, an almost crude pastiche of the smooth backgrounds of Velazquez or Manet. The body, perched on the edge of a lush red armchair in a dressing-gown and elegant flat shoes, looks like a celebrity in their dressing-room, accepting of portrayal, one hand placed patiently atop the other. The face, however, has an enthusiasm which betrays the body. The thick black shadows which the body’s torso throws onto the wall behind suggest the effect of a photographic flash. Photography’s emphasis on the bodily features of the subject and disinterest in the rest of the world are, however, absent here; the brushwork used to represent this body do not offer the narcissistic attentions that photography promises. The indeterminacy of these paintings offers a satiric mirror to the racism of cameras.
The interplay of light and darkness in this painting induces in the viewer an uncertainty which is central to the power of these paintings. Where the viewer of an equally large oil painting in a national art gallery would expect to recognise the signifiers which guide looking – the sociological facts of gender, sexuality, class, name, affect – Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits offer only uncertainty. Who – or what – is Oyster? A parochial viewer might think of the Oyster cards of the smooth and expensive London Transport System; we might hear Zora Neale Hurston sharpening her‘oyster knife’; I remain uncertain whose world this oyster is. If it is a name, Oyster doesn’t confirm the subject’s gender, but its aphrodisiac connotations, the sympathetic magic of its shape’s correspondent, signal the erotics of uncertainty. It is unclear whether this body is male or female. This indeterminacy is central to art’s radical calling-into-question of identity politics.
The last poem in the Bulaq Diwan of Ibn al-‘Arabi, ‘I saw males in females’, alternates between masculine and feminine constructions to produce a space where the revelation of truth is a new kind of bewilderment. The ‘indeterminate questions‘ posed by poetry or painting offer exemplary resistance to grammars – visual and linguistic – of the empire that fixes identities. The body represented in Oyster is drawn for the viewer and, simultaneously, the viewer is drawn in; this chiasmic figure is the world of uncertainty. To turn this lens on its head: what world is this body’s oyster? Yiadom-Boakye’s titles often have a poetics which doesn’t entirely match the visual data of the painting, creating a non-meeting of meanings between title and painting, a semantic dissonance between name and image which describes a body whose identity is not determined. With echoes of Gertrude Stein in our mind, and Yiadom Boakye’s work Rose Neither Poetry in our view, the artist responds: a painting is a painting is a painting is a painting.
The title of Songs in the Head (above), for example, invites and resists the attribution of meaning. In the painting, two men – one smiling slightly, the other plainly confident – face each other, touching their champagne flutes together. The men’s heavy suits, the affect of this encounter (if we can make a confident judgement), their pose, suggests a spirit of congratulation. In the dubious lens of the British media, the image of suited men engaged in champagne celebrations evokes, for this viewer at least, narratives of gluttony. Are these men the corrupt politicians which media portraits insist are unique to Africa? In Tony Blair’s autobiography, that expert manipulator of mass media, he remarks on the naivety of his colleagues’ decision to have themselves pictured at work with a bottle of wine. After New Labour’s crusade to make ‘everyone’ in Great Britain middle-class, wine is less a spirit of aspiration than a commodity cheaply consumed by that same ‘everyone’ and this reading falters. The men in Yiadom-Boakye’s painting may be brothers, friends, or lovers.
Is the reason these paintings are so beguiling and so troubling the cognitive uncertainty they produce? The indeterminate space they create seems to accommodate a range of readings, naive and cynical, so that our response to them exposes us. The darknesses of these paintings, their dissonant names, evoke some hidden social commentary, but viewers who don’t look for what is beyond this satiric mirror will find they have become its first victim. During her exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery, the artist was interviewed by the students of a local primary school; she gave the following answer to the question, ‘Why do you only paint people?’
‘I find people really fun because you can do anything with them: paint them in their socks, make them dance or just have them relaxing at the seaside.’
This answer challenges the desire to over-determine the meaning of these paintings, whose attention – to the almost inscrutable affects of single bodies, to the almost illegible relations between multiple bodies – recommends a gaze which sees in art a reflection of our needs. These speculations are, necessarily, as inconclusive as what is felt in front of these artworks and stolen away from the gallery into the rest of the world. If these uncertainties are the true work of these paintings, our task must be learning to live with them.
By Orlando Reade
Orlando Reade is currently studying for a PhD on early modern poetry and colonialism at Princeton University.