Until 2 October 2022
I am a painter and a cultural activist.
Visitors to Tate Modern are invited to complete, via their presence, the artwork by Lubaina Himid that is on display. They feel encouraged to wander around and attempt to answer questions such as ‘What are monuments for?’ or ‘What does love sound like?’ that are written on walls at the beginning of each section. No explanatory notes are given in the form of captions, but a booklet is available at the entrance of the exhibition which summarises the different themes of the works and give some details about the artist’s career.
Himid was born in Zanzibar (Tanzania) in 1954 but her mother moved to England when she was only four months old after the death of Himid’s father. She was trained in Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of the Arts and obtained her MA in Cultural History at the Royal Academy of Arts. Her interest was centred on Black artists and she took part in the British art movement of the 1980s. In 1991 she moved to Preston, where she teaches contemporary art at the University of Central Lancashire. In her artworks she explores the search for identity of Black people who were displaced by various diasporas and, in a wider perspective, our place in a world in which inequalities, discrimination and injustices call for change. Questions linger throughout the exhibition, starting from the atrium, where kanga panels hang from the ceiling with inscriptions on them asking ‘How do you spell change?’. It is a thought-provoking rhetorical question that challenges our certainties at the root. It implies a participation and maybe a commitment or some action from the audience. ‘Audience as Performers’ is the title of the poem by Himid that is displayed at the entrance of the exhibition, and it implies an acting or playing of some sort. The poem is composed of a series of questions without question marks:
What is my plan
What will I learn about myself here
What would I do in this situation
How is my life the same as this one
What does this setting offer me today
Which question am I asking
How fast do I want to go
Who do I want to be
They are supposed to engage the visitors in an experience that is not just viewing but is performative as well. No answers are given; the questions are personal and each one of us should find their own answers. The questions should generate a rethinking of what happened in the past, what is going on in the present and how we envisage a possible future in which change for good is crucial.
In 2017 Himid was the first Black woman to win the Turner Prize. She was also awarded an MBE in June 2010 and received a CBE after being listed in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2018 for her services to art. In her work she emphasises the creativity of people of colour and criticises the way they are presented by the establishment. Female figures are central, and how they resist the dominant culture and affirm their uniqueness is represented. Himid’s work is sometimes dramatic, often theatrical but never tragic. Clothes and colours are important in shaping identities and giving a voice and names to people who were exploited, marginalised and silenced. The references to Black slaves and servants who were shipped to England and to America is clear though understated. They go from being invisible to becoming central in her work. She gives them the chance to be remembered, to be part of a humankind that cares for everybody without exception whatever their race, colour, gender or religion. It is an idealistic vision that calls for action but is never violent or aggressive. Himid’s tone is soft, and her work is sophisticated; as she says, she is a cultural activist not a political leader. Nevertheless, her work is political too and engages the viewer in its exuberant display of colours and its variety of media, such as installations, soundscapes, soundtracks, cut-outs, portraits in drawers and painted wagons. It is an astonishing show of creativity that reveals a peculiar and profound understanding of humanity. Injustices are always present but there is also a possible path that leads to change that in turn will result in a better future. Her work is therefore poetical and political; she tells stories that invite the reinvention of realities that perhaps build different environments in which men and especially women can consider and choose what they want and who they wiil be. In this context, the marginal becomes the centre in a reversed perspective that occurs in a constant conversation which is dedicated to change.
The first room shows the series ‘Metal Handkerchief’ (2019) together with the audio by Magda Stawarska-Beavan, ‘Reduce the Time Spent Holding’ (2019), with whom Himid collaborated on several projects. Both works propose a disruptive vision of DIY tools. For example, a saw depicted in acrylics on a metal sheet has the inscription ‘allow for short breaks’ and the picture of nails in the same series is titled ‘reduce the time spent holding’. The phrases do not seem to have a direct connection with the tools depicted but they challenge their use and suggest a dangerous side, probably referring to relationships. The collaborative work mimics health and safety guidelines that control society but do not guarantee safety. The two artists collaborated on the ‘Blue Grid Test’ (2020) as well. It is a meditation in sounds combined with Himid’s painting and sculptural installation and includes various pieces of information on the colour blue in different languages with multi-layered interpretations. The work is displayed horizontally on the walls of the second room and is connected to speakers.
The following rooms are filled with significant artworks as well, such as ‘Old Boat/New Money’, which features wooden planks painted in different greyish shades and decorated with cowrie shells. The planks look like oars, and in the past, cowrie shells had a powerful symbolic meaning and were used as currency in some African countries. The reference to the slave trade is therefore manifested though not forthright and suggests the importance of remembering the past to make sense of the present and shape a better future. The painted feast wagons are particularly interesting. They feature British fish, a burying beetle and a scorpion, and although they look like carts used for a parade, the subjects depicted are reminders of death. The portraits of Black men in drawers create a space for people whose names have been forgotten. However, they are intentionally framed in a restricted space that does not allow expansion or freedom of expression. The colours are captivating; they are in bright and bold shades and are similar to those used in the series of paintings called Le Rodeur, the same name as a French slave ship where, in 1819, thirty-nine African men and women were thrown overboard with their hands shackled. The figures in the paintings look calm and in control, composed and elegant. There is no screaming, no sign of rebellion or violence. They represent the role and life assigned to Black people by the white masters, as is also shown in the ‘Six Tailors’ and ‘The Button Maker’, which represent work that Black people were made to do. ‘A Fashionable Marriage’ (first shown in 1986; reassembled in 2017 and 2021) is a theatrical installation that echoes Hogarth’s ‘Marriage A-la-Mode’ with its political and satirical undertones that criticise the politics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The ambiguous figures that surround the central Black woman, who represents the artist, look lost in their corrupted reality. Near the stage installation, the impressive ‘Freedom and Change’ (1984) is particularly symbolic, the figures of the two women seeming reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘Two Women Running on the Beach’ (The Race, 1922); the picture expresses unleashed vitality and renewed hope. It is an explosion of life that confirms Himid’s profound and continuous engagement with a new vision that suggests a more hopeful and positive future. The exhibition embeds and displays the multifaceted aspects of the artist’s work in a showing rather than telling approach that aims to engage the audience and provoke a possible rethinking of or change in our vision of societal and cultural roles.
Carla Scarano © 2022.