About Lubaina Himid and her artwork

Update - May 2017: Lubaina Himid is now in the running for the Turner Prize 2017!


Lubaina Himid, or The Colours of Our Past

Melissa Chemam 

Going to Bristol, early 2015, in order to write about its integrated and diverse culture, I came back with much more than I expected. I spent two years in and out of the city, in order to write a book about the band Massive Attack and the role of their city and environment in their development, going there back and forth from Paris or London, but also going to Calais, Trapani in Sicily, and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, as I was also covering the refugee crisis as a freelance journalist. And exploring the culture of England’s West Country, a culture made of unexpected encounters between a punk ethos and a deeply creative Caribbean population, I discovered a lot about the role of the African and West Indian diasporas in the U.K.

In our challenging interconnected world, following an array of compelling electoral results in America and in Europe, amidst the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, Britain, with the remains of its imperial and post-colonial history, appears to me, more than ever, as a relevant platform to observe what the arts can tell us about our changing Western world.

With a very dynamic reggae DJ scene in the 1960s, followed by a creative underground scene of talented street artists and hip-hop crews, Bristol became a platform for a social and cultural mix. But this didn’t only happen in a few decades, social change in this region has its roots in the history of Bristol’s port, as in a strong link between England and the new world, from the sixteenth century, which included a vast role in the slave trade.

Since the beginning of 2015, I was therefore not surprised to see Bristol’s art venues host exhibitions such as the M Shed’s commemoration of the role of West Indian soldiers in the First World War, Jamaican Pulse at the Royal West of England Academy and, in January 2016, John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea at the Arnolfini Gallery. The last one was a mesmerizing and tragic audio-visual experience by the filmmaker and founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, comprising seven Black British and diaspora multimedia artists and filmmakers (John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George and Claire Joseph).

Now this winter, the very contemporary Spike Island Gallery, in South Bristol, was the host of an exhibition dedicated to the unique and ground-shaking work of painter and installation artist Lubaina Himid. Along with two other galleries in the United Kingdom: Modern Art Oxford and at Nottingham Contemporary.

Path of Changes

With the carrier path of a pioneer, as one of the forefront representative of Black artists in the U.K., it is no surprise that Lubaina Himid is now at the centre of these three concomitant exhibitions, which bring an unmissable occasion to plunge into her eye-opening and striking work.

Her art pieces seem to have the power to come alive, as she is actually mixing different art forms: canvas, installations, painting, and sound effects. At the Spike Island Gallery, the Navigating Charts exhibition was a relevant example of this mastery. Painted on panels installed standing in the Spike Island Gallery’s main room, accompanied with a sound system broadcasting these characters’ voices and with names written on their back side, these portraits of African slaves leave you with a powerful sense of both familiarity and estrangement.

A hundred cut-out figures thus representing slaves in eighteenth-century European Royal courts are on display in her Bristol exhibition, along with some of her large and smaller canvas. The soundtrack and the names of the characters – mentioning both an original African name and a newly given English name – create a whole conversation and bring about the idea of fluid identities. Walking in the whole installation seems to open a possibility for meetings across time…

“I was very early on a political teenager,” Lubaina Himid tells me on the phone from her home in Preston, a few days after the opening at Spike Island. “I went to marches, protests, it was part of my life. My mother was a textile designer and she loved anything artistic, took me art galleries, showed me the beautiful patterns she would use, so very early on I was drawn to art that had a political force, especially Berthold Brecht and this is why I was interested in theatre design. But I became even more aware politically after turning twenty. I got interested in street theatre that was a big thing in France in the late 1970s but not so much in Britain and I became more confident about my own artistic expression. Then in the 80s, of course, the political situation became more extreme in the U.K., and especially for minorities.”

Born in Zanzibar in 1954, Lubaina Himid moved to Britain as a child with her parents in the 1960s and grew up in London. She started her pathway through the art world by studying theatre design, before entering the Royal Art College and writing a thesis in cultural history on young Black artists in Britain, released in 1984. A smashing accomplishment that quickly took her to also support other artists’ debuts, including Sutapa Biswas, Sonia Boyce, Claudette Johnson, Veronica Ryan, Indrid Pollard.

A Major Voice for The Black British Culture

Primarily known as a painter, Lubaina Himid’s work has been shown at the Tate Modern and the International Institute for Visual Art, in London, but also the Manchester Art Gallery and the Peg Alston Gallery, in New York.

She became a curator in London in the mid-80s and organised the Thin Black Line exhibition at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in 1985 for instance. Meanwhile, she was producing her own art, influenced by her passion for German playwright Berthold Brecht and its “distanciation” effect in theatre.

She now works on both art installations and figurative painting, using strong patterns, colours and themes. With references to slavery, forced labour, colonial history, migration and the role of the “Black” diaspora in Europe, her art obviously stands out in the British 1990s art scene. She later started teaching history of contemporary arts at the University of Central Lancaster, in Preston.

“The good thing for me is that working with Black artists was never a lonely path. We did quite early some collaborative exhibitions, with the Black Art Group, the Black Art Gallery; in London, Nottingham, Bristol; it was the opposite of lonely. But it was a battle, and a extra battle to say something political”.

One of her series of work represents perfectly the artist engaging herself, using museums and galleries as sites for a strong critical discourse. With Revenge, in the early 1990s, Lubaina Himid addressed “the feminist critique of painting”, says her website, as she contemplated and re-ordered “the making of history”, creating her work as “both celebration and mourning”. In 2001, she herself reflected that some of the series’ paintings were “a musing on what would happen if black women got together and started to try to destroy maps and charts – to undo what has been done”.  

The Revenge series was first exhibited at the Rochdale Art Gallery in 1992. It comprised twelve elements: ten paintings, an installation and a drawing on paper, what included figurative pieces depicting pairs of black women in different scenes, as for instance the now famous Between the Two My Heart is Balanced and Ankledeep, created in 1991 (shown at the Tate Modern). They came along with more abstract pieces, inspired by African textile pattern, as Carpet.

“The space they occupy is filled with them and expands with their ideas,” said Lubaina Himid in the in Rochdale Art Gallery’s catalogue, in 1992. “They have several strategies, they expand to fill the situation. The women take revenge; their revenge is that they are still here they are still artists, that their creativity is still political and committed to change, to change for the good.”

A decade later, Naming the Money, presented in 2004, was her first large installation of her signature ‘cut-outs’, already representing African slaves in royal courts of eighteenth century Europe, put to work as ceramicists, herbalists, toy makers, dog trainers, viola da gamba players, drummers, dancers, shoemakers, map makers and painters. Naming the Money was trying to reproduce the experience of migrants, but in the situation of slaves – reflecting both on dissolving identities and on the pressures imposed by our global political and economic forces.

New Art For New Times

The three exhibitions running this spring are a step forward in Lubaina’s carrier, and a chance to get her work displayed nationwide in the U.K., underlining her pioneering role and her forefront talent.

“The central theme is about how to achieve a sense of belonging,” insists Lubaina, and especially as a specific population of the country, with a slightly different history to say the least. “And it’s about how to get a recognition of the contribution of the diasporas in our culture,” she adds. “Slavery is very present in today’s Britain, it’s not only an affair of the past, you see it when you look at so many buildings, at people, it’s always around me and much more visible than it was in the 1980s. Even if the detailed events related to slavery are not found in mainstream history books, I believe every part of history impacts us all the time; it does not go away”. 

Art, according to her, has the power to open a dialogue about such issues, to initiate conversations, and it is important. “We can look at the past and just sincerely ask ‘where do we go from here?’ I believe. I do think that the British people have so far been better at facing the truth of history than the French for instance,” concludes Lubaina. And if they can go further, it can become a source of richness, bonding and creativity for the entire society. 


Exhibitions details:

Navigation Charts was at Spike Island, Bristol, from 20 January to 26 March; Invisible Strategies is at Modern Art Oxford from 21 January to 30 April; The Place is Here is at Nottingham Contemporary from 4 February at 30 April.

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