YoYo Lander’s Vulnerable Portraits Celebrate Black Beauty and Strength

Charles Moore
Aug 19, 2020 9:31PM

Portrait of YoYo Lander by Ciley Carrington. Courtesy of the artist.

Los Angeles–based artist YoYo Lander has made a career of exploring the human form. Her portrayals of Black people, often made up of cut and dyed pieces of watercolor paper on white backgrounds, are designed to capture light and emphasize the natural beauty of her subjects. But recently, she’s been concerned about how art students, curators, collectors, and institutions will look back on Black contemporary art. How will they interpret the current social and political climate in the future? What narratives will they piece together about Black people today?

Lander believes too much of Black artists’ work that’s currently celebrated showcases struggle and pain. It’s a one-dimensional narrative that she hopes to overcome—in part by sharing more of her own work. “There are horrible things in the world, but there are equally so many beautiful things, too,” she said in a recent interview. “The Black experience is not monolithic.…Joy always overcomes pain.” And by celebrating the beauty, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness of the Black experience, she offers a refreshingly new perspective on the matter.

YoYo Lander, Time Off, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Band of Vices.

YoYo Lander
The Belly of Her Mind is Never Full, 2020
Studio 525

Lander is currently gaining renown, as her works are featured in the new Studio 525 exhibition “Voices” and recently figured prominently in the Christie’s online exhibition and sale “Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud).” And in September 2021, she’ll have her first major solo show with Los Angeles gallery Band of Vices.

Born in Sumter, South Carolina, Lander earned her BA in communications from Howard University, before getting her MFA from UCLA in 2010. Her first solo show, at Los Angeles’s Dysonna Art Gallery in 2016, reflected on her experiences visiting Africa during summers with her uncle Boykin Sanders. After navigating new terrains of Ghana and Ethiopia, she created eight figurative paintings inspired by the people she met and the experiences she had.

YoYo Lander, Deep Water and Drowning are not the Same Thing, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Band of Vices.

This early work didn’t sell at the time, but that gave Lander the push she said she needed to find a mentor and hone her voice. She met artist Knowledge Bennett, who urged her to find her own authentic perspective, and so she circled back to the subjects that resonated with her the most: her parents.

There was a newfound sense of honesty and emotion in the works where Lander portrayed her parents’ stories. “It’s easier to tell your story than to tell someone else’s story,” she said.

YoYo Lander, Nothing to Hide, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Band of Vices.

YoYo Lander, Consider Me, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Band of Vices.

Lander began creating work that foregrounds skin, the body, and movement. She attributes the physicality of her work in part to her own athleticism, as well as her father’s recovery from a debilitating car accident. She started to examine what it would mean to incorporate a more profound sense of the agility and fragility of the body. At this point, her work began to sell.

In 2019, Lander began her “Time Off” series, which is focused on Black female vulnerability, and what it means to look within oneself. The artist was exploring notions of who a person is in solitude. Each of the eight works—which were exhibited at Band of Vices in the spring 2020 show “Shades of Summer”—portray solitary nude women. They appear in different poses—crouched on the floor, lying in bed, seen from behind, pressed against a wall. The bold Velvet and Steel (2019), for instance, blends strength and softness through the female figure. The subject is seated on a red chair; she partially obscures her face with one hand, yet her gaze addresses the viewer head-on. “Being strong for Black women is championed, and being feminine is an afterthought sometimes,” Lander said, adding that she strives to achieve this sense of balance for herself.

YoYo Lander, Velvet and Steel, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Band of Vices.

YoYo Lander, Tired of Being Buried Down by Hope, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Band of Vices.

YoYo Lander, Faith is an Attitude, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Band of Vices.

To bring these pieces to life, Lander forms thoughtful relationships with her models, gauging their interest and willingness to participate before asking them outright to pose. “I ask people who I feel will be open to posing for me,” she said. “Usually it’s a visceral feeling.” Sometimes, she knows her models personally; other times, they’re strangers.

Lander recalled that she met one of the “Time Off” models at a party; the woman had mentioned she often sends nudes to the men she dates. “I love my body, and the pictures are tasteful, so why not?” the model said. Lander asked her to pose, and she agreed. The open artist-model connection is apparent in every piece. Lander first photographs her subjects, then sketches out what will ultimately become layered works on paper, canvas, or wood panels.

YoYo Lander, When the Walls Fall, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Band of Vices.

YoYo Lander, The Deeper Longing Is Greater Than Discomfort, 2020. Courtesy of the artist, Destinee Ross-Sutton, and Christie’s.

Recently, the artist’s work was featured in Christie’s “Say It Loud,” curated by Destinee Ross-Sutton, and named after the 1968 James Brown song “Say it Loud: I’m Black, and I’m Proud.” Organized by the CSR Diversity & Inclusion Employee Initiatives Group at Christie’s, the exhibition featured the works of 22 mid-career Black artists, providing a platform for the talent in partnership with The Harlem Arts Alliance.

Lander showcased Have Tears and The Deeper Longing is Greater Than Discomfort (both 2020). Each work is in her signature style, made up of cut pieces of watercolor paper. Have Tears, a triptych portraying a man covering his face from three different angles, reflects on the notion of slavery, and how challenging it is to simply forget about something that has given the world so much to remember. In it, Lander illustrates the familiar notion of feeling frustrated, while also trying to refocus; the anguish of urging society to be enraged, but also to be productive in order to spark change.

YoYo Lander, HAVE TEARS, 2020. Courtesy of the artist, Destinee Ross-Sutton, and Christie’s.

The Deeper Longing is Greater Than Discomfort is another piece from the “Time Off” series, in which a woman appears curled up on the red chair, her head resting on its back as she appears lost in thought. “There’s always that ‘thing’ we long for,” Lander said of the piece. “It stays with us…always there…somewhere in the background…burning.”

Lander’s work is also featured in the “Voices” exhibition, curated by Anwarii Musa, at New York’s Studio 525, from August 20th through September 8th—the space’s first exhibition since the COVID-19 pandemic. Featuring the work of contemporary Black artists and creatives, “Voices” celebrates the Black Lives Matter movement, Black beauty, and as the title suggests, Black voices.

“No matter who you are or where you come from,” Lander reflected, “your story is important.”

Charles Moore