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  • Divya Sharma

Marlene Dumas’s Naomi 1995 and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Many words for No 2013

It is interesting to compare and contrast their work in light of their differing ages, influences and ideologies. Marlene Dumas, born in apartheid South Africa, was hugely influenced by the environment she was raised in and reflected that in her work and Lynette artist originally from Ghana but born in London who works with black people to reflect her identity and background.

I was introduced to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work in recently in the British Art show in Southampton and was immediately struck by the personality of the portraits displayed in the room. Whereas Marlene Dumas came into focus thanks to the 2015 Tate exhibition “Image as burden’. I see a lot of parallels between their work despite their differing backgrounds and influences.

Marlene Dumas’ ‘Naomi’ is an intriguing painting.. beckoning, bold and not self conscious at all to say the least. She meets our gaze but does this cautiously under lowered lids. There is, at the same time a certain distance you want to maintain as a viewer. One forgets that the subject of this painting is a celebrity well known for her fashion imagery. The use of screen print colours brings in a hint of ‘Warhalesque’ reference. Putting this painting in context, Marlene Dumas was born in apartheid South Africa before moving to Amsterdam in 1976. Her portraits are born out of inspirations from photographs of people (also) celebrities and her themes amongst many include racial and ethnic intolerance. Her use of transparent white paint with water saturated colours in her portraits give them a sense of flatness. It forces you to look beyond the surface of the painting and understand the context of its origin. In her own words she creates visual poetry with the viewer reading between the lines.

In Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Many words for No on the other hand, there is a ‘lushness’ in her composition with a vibrant blue standing out against the black ground. The painting is traditional in terms of scale, composition and colour but the subject and the handling of paint is definitely modern. Both portraits have a black ground with vibrant colours on the figure, yet the effect they have on the viewer is very different.

Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are typically done in one day to “best capture a single moment or a stream of consciousness”. Her subjects who are predominantly black often seems like she is making a statement about race but according to Yiadom-Boakye, because she black herself she can ‘completely manipulate or reinvent or use’ as she wants. Contemporary art now has seen such diverse avatars like installation, film and conceptual work but Yiadom-Boakye’s ‘traditional’ figurative work stands out. Yiadom-Boakye was born in London but is of Ghanaian origin and proudly carries her heart on her sleeve about her heritage and culture. Unlike Dumas who works out of photographs Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings focus on fictional people and she describes them as ‘ suggestions of people’. This lack of a context leaves her work open to interpretation of the viewer. Her portraits have a powerful ‘presence’ and the texture and handling of the paint is very seductive. She seems to take inspirations from poems for her enigmatic titles of her work.

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