Painter, installation artist, curator, professor of contemporary art, Lubaina Himid is one of the pioneers of the Black Arts movement in Britain. Born in Zanzibar in 1954, she first came to prominence in the early 1980s, organising exhibitions of work by her peers, whom she felt were under-represented in the contemporary art scene. She also made her own distinctive paintings, prints and large-scale cutout figures arranged in intricate installations.
Although she has spent the past three decades making work and curating shows devoted to uncovering marginalised histories, figures and cultural movements, in recent years Himid’s own work has not received the attention it deserves. All this is set to change: a turning point was in 2014 when she was included in the Gwangju Biennale, and now she has two simultaneous survey exhibitions opening this month at Modern Art Oxford and Spike Island in Bristol. Both contain many works that have not been seen for decades or are having their first institutional airing. She is also a participant in, and adviser to, The Place Is Here, a show of black British art of the 1980s opening at Nottingham Contemporary in early February.
The Art Newspaper: What is the difference between the Oxford and Bristol shows?
Lubaina Himid: In the Bristol show, which is called Navigation Charts, I was trying to make something that relates to the city and its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. So all the work is about that kind of to-ing and fro-ing, that migration and what happens to people when they end up in places that are not where they started off. I’m showing the whole of Naming the Money , a hundred-piece installation of life-sized wooden cutouts of a mass-slave gathering, with a soundtrack. Audiences can walk among these people and listen to their life stories, which are also mounted as tiny texts on the back of each of the cutouts. Another large installation, Cotton.com , is a series of about 70 black and white paintings, each about eight inches square, spread across one wall. They present imagined conversations between the cotton workers of Lancashire and the cotton slaves of South Carolina. There’s also a set of paper works that I have only shown once before, called Zanzibar, which are three series of kangas [East African garments] that refer to my heritage and are quite personal political works. The others are more about the bigger political dialogue.
Is the Oxford exhibition more of a chronological retrospective?
Yes. It’s called Invisible Strategies and the works spread from Freedom and Change, an early piece from 1984, where two black women are running across the beach—in a direct lift from Picasso’s design for the theatre curtain for Le Train Bleu—through to two large paintings from my series Le Rodeur, which I made this year.
Even when you use other media, your work has been described as history painting, and presenting new or hidden histories seems to be a core aim throughout.
Definitely. It was Mike Tooby [founding curator of Tate St Ives, now professor at Bath School of Art] who first asked me in the late 1980s if I was a history painter, and I said yes. It helped me to define my practice and I went on to make a series of watercolours imagining a day in the life of a heroic figure, Toussaint L’Ouverture [the former slave who led the Haitian revolution and went on to rule Haiti as an independent state]. It was my way of trying to change how history would be told in the future. I’m a kind of filler-in of gaps.
Instead of a conventional art school education, you studied stage design at Wimbledon—what was the appeal?
I wanted to be a theatre designer because—due to French and Italian street theatre—I was convinced that theatre was a tool for political change. I thought I could change the world. It never occurred to me to make paintings at all, of any kind. But I soon learned that theatre in Britain clings on to its past rather tightly and rather hard. Yet designing for the theatre taught me how to look at the world in a really broad way: you were given a play and you could interpret it whichever way you wanted. I learned a lot about who I was by doing theatre design.
Lubaina Himid, A Fashionable Marriage (1986) (Image: courtesy of the artist)
Yes. I’m showing Fashionable Marriage, an installation made in 1986, inspired by Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode, which was laying down the gauntlet in every way I possibly could—I was full of hope and looking for a fight. It presents a very particular way of talking about the history of why black people are here and also about the circumstances in which we found ourselves in the 1980s. Conversations between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were going on at the same time as those between feminist artists and critics, who were negotiating and trying to maintain some kind of dignity across all those tumultuous scenarios. There were black political activities going on in the streets, and in the art world we were trying to decide whether calling ourselves black artists was sensible because it drew attention, or alienating because it flagged up the work as political rather than considering it as art.
It is deeply depressing that so many of the issues you were raising years ago have become so ominously topical.
Of course, I could not have believed that all these years later, instead of Margaret Thatcher we would have Theresa May, and instead of Ronald Reagan we’d have Donald Trump. In the intervening years all of us from every angle thought we’d dealt with things, but it turns out we only dealt with things in a surface way. We thought, that’s OK, there are black people in the newspapers now, or we can see black people on the television, or everyone’s acknowledging that we have made this or that kind of progress, but we never went as far as we could go, or to the very core of what we could achieve. We left things half-baked. We just scratched the surface and then went on to something else, and now it’s come back to bite us.
So how do you feel about your work being revisited within today’s political climate?
I’ve never felt so exposed. We were dealing with an invisibility, trying to get ourselves seen, trying to get ourselves shown, trying to make the point about being part of the history and contributing to the wealth of the nation. I hope that younger artists will find the work useful, if only in order to see the mistakes we made. But I think artists today are more able to understand strategy and to deal with their visibility and the complex place that they find themselves in.
You have devoted your career to proposing new histories and yet you refer to the art history canon and especially 18th-century satirists—Hogarth, Cruikshank and Gillray.
I love the strength and energy of those artists, their ability to be so sure of their Britishness and yet really ready to criticise it at the same time. They weren’t afraid of taking a strong and savage swipe at what they saw around them.
And with both them and you, humour is crucial.
They’re funny because it’s much easier to draw an audience into a story and into the issues if you’re saying, “Come on, let’s have a conversation about this,” rather than, “You’ve done something wrong. Get out of the gallery.” I don’t want to go into an art gallery and see work that humiliates or upsets me—that’s not the kind of work I want to make. You can’t underestimate the energy and intelligence of an audience—they’re not a homogenous blob. You’re engaging with people who are there because they are curious; they like to look; they like to debate—otherwise they could be just sitting at home watching afternoon TV. You’ve got to draw them in.
• Navigation Charts, Spike Island, Bristol, 20 January-26 March; Invisible Strategies, Modern Art Oxford, 21 January-30 April; The Place is Here, Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February-30 April
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