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Lubaina Himid’s moment

Lubaina Himid’s moment

She began her career by tackling the racial politics of the 1980s. As three new exhibitions show, her art feels just as resonant today

She began her career by tackling the racial politics of the 1980s. As three new exhibitions show, her art feels just as resonant today

Imelda Barnard | February 9th 2017

Lubaina Himid’s “Naming the Money” (2004, above), part of her current exhibition at Spike Island in Bristol, fights against invisibility. This is partly because of the installation’s scale and theatricality, which reflect the artist’s training in stage design. Conjuring a mass slave gathering, the work is made up of 100 freestanding life-sized cut-outs that are propped around the gallery. Himid takes the African servants often found in the framed edges of 18th-century European portraits – symbols of their employers’ power and wealth – and gives these forgotten figures a role, a voice, a name. In putting historically marginalised figures at the centre of her work, she asserts and celebrates the black contribution to British cultural life.

Born in Zanzibar in 1954, Himid grew up in London before moving to Preston in the north of England in the late 1980s. Spike Island’s survey runs alongside a second solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford which features early works such as “Freedom and Change” (1984, below), an installation that transforms female figures in a Picasso work into black women, and strange new paintings inspired by a slave-ship voyage. A new performance piece by Sonia Boyce, a contemporary of Himid, has just opened at the ICA in London, and both artists are included in Nottingham Contemporary’s latest exhibition, “The Place Is Here”, which examines the broader British Black Arts Movement.

 “Freedom and Change” (1984) by Lubaina Himid

This attention is both long overdue and timely. The Black Arts Movement emerged from the first National Black Art Convention held at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1982, organised by the Blk Art Group, a loose association of artists of Caribbean descent growing up in the post-industrial heartlands of the midlands and the north. Its members, who included Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper, Claudette Johnson, Donald Rodney and Marleen Smith, came of age during a time of racial tension and heightened debates about black identity. Chambers was pivotal, instigating the group’s first exhibition, “Black Art ‘An Done”, in 1981 – a few months after the Brixton Riots. He exhibited “The Destruction of the National Front” (1979-80, below), four screenprints which show the British flag torn up and recast in the shape of a swastika.

“The Destruction of the National Front” (1979-1980) by Eddie Chambers

The work of Himid, Chambers and their contemporaries now has renewed resonance. The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was dominated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, and after the vote there was a surge in reported racial hate crime. Himid’s interest in movement and migration feels especially relevant. Spike Island’s display includes a series of dreamlike abstract works on Zanzibar from the late 1990s, alongside “Drowned Orchard: Secret Boatyard” (2014, below), a collection of 16 thin wooden paintings resting against a wall that refer to treacherous sea-crossings. When I spoke to her at the end of last year, Himid’s vexation with contemporary Britain was clear: “It’s frustrating that many of us could see this coming; many issues brought up in the Eighties were not dealt with or resolved properly.”

As well as racial politics, the Black Arts Movement took on wider social inequalities in Thatcher’s Britain. Himid’s “A Fashionable Marriage” (1986), a large-scale tableau of cut-outs on show in Nottingham, draws on Hogarth’s “Marriage A-la-Mode” (1743-45), a critique of affluent 18th-century society, to take aim at greed and excess. In Himid’s reimagining, the countess and her lover become Thatcher and Reagan.

“Drowned Orchard: Secret Boatyard” (2014), by Lubaina Himid

Himid’s generation also drew upon international resistance movements, in particular anti-apartheid activism in South Africa and civil rights groups in the United States. Tate Modern’s summer exhibition, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”, looks at the development of black art in America from 1963 to 1983. Among the artists included are Romare Bearden and Betye Saar, both major influences on Himid. Saar’s 1972 assemblage “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” subverts stereotypical images of black women: by giving the Aunt Jemima figure both a rifle and a broom she is transformed from a domestic slave into a powerful militant. In a recent issue of Frieze, Himid singled out this work for its “biting wit and political wisdom”.

Himid, like other black British artists during the 1980s, wanted to be acknowledged by the art mainstream. Yet, as Chambers wrote in his book, “Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s”: “British art itself has tended to keep black artists – both British-born as well as immigrant – at arm’s length.” The current crop of exhibitions is in marked contrast to 30 years ago, when Himid and Chambers fought against collective invisibility with DIY initiative. The legacy of the Black Arts Movement can be felt in the international success of Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen, both Turner prize-winners. Himid recently told BBC Radio 4 that young artists today are right to shy away from being labelled as black artists. “But in the 1980s, I had to argue for the fact that there was such a thing as a black artist. Just as people…we were more or less invisible except to ourselves.”

Navigation Charts, Spike Island, Bristol, to March 26th; Invisible Strategies, Modern Art Oxford, to April 30th ; The Place is Here, Nottingham Contemporary, to April 30th

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