During my stint in London earlier in the year, and in one of the brief instants of what the English call summer, I took myself off to the galleries. For context, this was long before their momentous “Freedom Day”, which has subsequently had Brits careering about the island in strappy frocks and without masks, or dashing off to Greece like they’re in a scene from Mamma Mia. Rather, my dose of culture took place in the week when all public institutions reopened following the UK’s third wave. For months the country’s galleries, theatres, and museums had been sealed tight. In fact, just prior to my gallery excursion I’d spent a day walking across the city.
From Waterloo Station I’d zigzagged past South Africa House, through Covent Garden, up Carnaby Street, to Marylebone and Bloomsbury. It was exciting to be wandering the streets, glimpsing buildings I love — but nothing prepared me for the London I came across. Roller doors were bolted, humans were scarce, theatres dark, pavements empty, cafes only offering outdoor seating. And even then no one was using them. So many shops had not survived the pandemic and were boarded up or barren. Oxford Street was a tatty mess before Covid, and now it sported an added layer of abandonment. It was dismaying to witness this new landscape, and crystalised my sense that nowhere had escaped the tsunami of the coronavirus – not even this global economic hub.
It really wasn’t the mental picture I wished to have imprinted on my brain of a place I love. Thank god then for my sojourn to Tate Britain. Visiting this 124-year-old gallery in Millbank is always a good idea. This time, though, my walking through its portico and into those grand, marble-lined vestibules had restorative powers. It was a creative corrective for my tainted perceptions of a city and humankind. Firstly, there were people. Oh, the people! Masked and queuing quietly, they had come out in their numbers for their allocated time slot to enter the gallery. I could see that, like me, they were anxious about being in an indoor public space with crowds, but nothing was going to keep them from their fix of Bacon, Sargent, and Rossetti. They’d come to commune silently with Millais’ Ophelia or be submerged in a Hockney. The smell of espresso flooded out of the café and the museum stores were doing a swift trade in Shonibare wax-print totes and art primers for toddlers. There was a restrained but palpably jubilant energy. Hell, no one was even letting Heather Phillipson’s unsettling hell-zone of a multimedia instillation in the central gallery space get them down.
And then I entered the rooms dedicated to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s figurative paintings. Like Gibbonthe mass of mums with toddlers in prams, pensioners, groups of mates, and solo visitors, I’d specifically booked to see Fly in League With the Night, the survey dedicated to the Londoner. Yiadom-Boakye is the first Black female artist to have a major exhibition at the gallery and, patently, none of us was going to miss it. For a couple of pounds I was up close with her painterly imaginings of intimate moments, performers, the coolest man ever conjured (with an equally cool cat on his shoulder), and many faces staring directly out at us. Their melancholy, defiance, or amusement captured entirely with a few strokes of oil. The colour, the style, the subject matter — I was mesmerised.
Imagine having Yiadom-Boakye’s talent and vision? No wonder the 80 or so works in the exhibition were on loan from some of the world’s most important collectors and collections. Imagine having one of these jewels in your home. Would you ever be able to tear yourself away? Tragically, I had to settle for a couple of postcards instead. They’re now on my fridge, so whenever I open it, I’m reminded of an artist I adore. Her work lifts my spirits daily. That one exhibition saved London for me and is proof that, even when things are dire and hopeless, you can find beauty, magic, and genius — and their powers have no bounds.
• Buitendach is Wanted’s former editor, contributing editor to the Financial Mail, and has recently done a lot of googling of cuttlefish.
• From the September edition of Wanted, 2021.