The faces in Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits feel familiar: located in the where and when of memory, yet just beyond recognition. The British-Ghanaian artist paints people dancing, seated, and smiling, playing on a beach or huddling in a circle, but her subjects are fictive, conjured from the imagination. This “slight remove from reality,” says Isabella Maidment, a curator of contemporary British art at the Tate, is a distinguishing feature of Yiadom-Boakye’s work, which will have its first major survey at the museum, beginning on May 17.

Yiadom-Boakye in her London studio.

The exhibition’s title, “Fly in League with the Night,” is in keeping with the poetic ambiguity seen in these paintings. Yiadom-Boakye, who is also a writer, gives her portraits names such as Sapphires Under Cotton, Appreciation of the Inches, and Complication, which reveal little about their subjects. As Maidment points out, although the people that Yiadom-Boakye paints are “intimately knowable” (there is nothing fantastical about them, apart from their astonishing beauty and elegance), they are also deeply mysterious. Amid backdrops of loose brushstrokes, and dressed in nondescript clothing, the subjects, most of whom are Black, seem to exist in an absence of time and place.