This morning, the Tate gallery announced this year’s Turner Prize shortlist. Acclaimed for being ‘international’ in its make-up, the biggest surprise was perhaps the inclusion of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – the first black woman to be shortlisted for the prize. I will not be surprised if much of the discourse that follows (especially if Yiadom-Boakye is to win) will be about what this ‘means’ for black women artists, and whether or not the ‘establishment’ is becoming more inclusive. However, I can’t help but recall the words of Sonia Boyce, who at a recent panel discussion commented (and I paraphrase here), ‘once again, we have not talked about the work itself.’ It seems that black women’s work, in art as in other spheres, is always politicised. Do black women have the freedom to create art without having to specifically state their position?
In some ways Yiadom-Boakye’s work is unusual for a Turner Prize nominee; recent winners have been conceptual multi-media pieces. Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits, on the other hand, figurative in form, with subjects in a variety of ‘ordinary’ positions, seem more traditional in comparison. In fact what makes her oil paintings unconventional is that all the subjects are black. She herself has stated that this is in itself a political act, ‘We’re used to looking at portraits of white people in painting’. Of course, just because one artist chooses to make an explicitly political statement, does not mean that we should expect it from all black women.
I recently spoke about DIY Culture and how black women artists should continue to organise their own shows, rather than wait for mainstream approval which is often restrictive and can pigeonhole minority groups. However, that does not mean this approval should be outright rejected when it does appear. The fact remains, that institutions such as Tate have the power to dictate who is accepted into the ‘canon’ and to effectively create history. Thus, being accepted into the fold is an achievement. Black women artists are producing work just like everyone else, so why should we not be included in the museums and galleries, the holders of knowledge for future generations? Furthermore, the greater the presence of black women artists, as well as other excluded groups, the more
chance there is for ‘normalisation’ and thus the freedom to represent oneself in any way, political or otherwise.