Lubaina Himid: a trio of UK shows shines a light on the under-appreciated hero of black British art

Naming the Money (2004) One-hundred lifesize painted cut-out plywood figures, audio.
Detail of Naming the Money (2004) One-hundred lifesize painted cut-out plywood figures, audio,  Navigation Charts, Spike Island Credit: Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens and National Museums Liverpool: International Slavery Museum

The term “immersive installation” gets a lot of airplay these days, but walking amongst Lubaina Himid’s 100-strong crowd of life sized cut-out painted figures who stride, cavort and play a variety of instruments throughout the Spike Island space in Bristol is an especially all-encompassing and exhilarating experience. 

Himid’s work has long been concerned with black creativity, history and identity and this animated throng represents the Africans who were brought to Europe as slave servants. There are drummers, dog trainers, dancers, potters, cobblers, gardeners and players of the viola da gamba, all decked out in vivid versions of 17th century costume. Labels on their backs identify each individual, giving both their original African names and occupations as well those imposed by their new European owners, and these poignant texts also form part of an evocative soundtrack, interspersed with snatches of Cuban, Irish, Jewish and African music. 

Naming the Money (2004) One-hundred lifesize painted cut-out plywood figures, audio,  Navigation Charts, Spike Island Credit: Naming the Money is courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens and National Museums Liverpool: International Slavery Museum.

The piece – which dates from 2004, although Himid has added to it – is called Naming the Money and is especially relevant in the context of Bristol, a city that was a major port at the height of the slave trade. More uncomfortable connections between industrial wealth and human suffering are also underlined in Cotton.com, a wall covered with around 70 tiny black and white paintings which represent imagined conversations between the cotton workers of Lancashire and the cotton slaves of South Carolina. 

Drowned Orchard: Secret Boatyard (2014) Sixteen coloured, hand painted wooden planks,  Navigation Charts, Spike Island Credit:  Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens

“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,” says Himid. She’s also showing another series of paintings based on the cotton kangas worn in East Africa, which she made after returning to her own birthplace of Zanzibar for the first time since she left for London as a three-month-old baby following the death of her father from malaria.

 Himid first came to prominence in the early 1980s when she organised exhibitions of work by her peers whom she felt were under-represented in the contemporary art scene. At the same time, having switched from stage design to fine art, she was also developing her own distinctive paintings, prints, and large scale cut-out figures. 

Shutters Only Hide the Sun (Zanzibar) (1999) Acrylic on canvas, Navigation Charts, Spike Island Credit: Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens

Now she is Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire and was awarded an MBE in 2010. Himid has achieved academic renown, having spent the last three decades making work and curating shows devoted to uncovering marginalized histories and figures; she describes herself as “a filler-in of gaps”. Yet in recent years her own art has not received the attention it deserves. 

However this now seems set to change. As well as the Spike Island show there is  a major survey at Modern Art Oxford, and Himid is also a participant in – and advisor to – The Place is Here, a show of black British art of the 1980s at Nottingham Contemporary. 

The Oxford exhibition is named Invisible Strategies and steers a vibrant course through her prolific and multifarious career. There are sculptures, prints, customised newspapers and more of the free-standing board cutouts for which she is best known. 

Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change, 1984, Invisible Strategies, Modern Art Oxford Credit: Edmund Blok/Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Garden

One room contains a collection of 18th and 19th century bone china: the plates, bowls and tureens painted with vivid portraits of slaves, slave markets and cartoons based on James Gillray’s cartoons mocking the supposed perils of the abolitionist movement. In a gloriously mixed media piece from the 1980s, two colossal black women – directly lifted from Picasso’s bathers – are painted onto a pink sheet hurtling across a beach, their dresses made out of airmail envelopes. Dragged along by a pack of dogs, they kick sand in the faces of a pair of doleful white men buried up to their necks.

At the same time as Himid’s work forms the most serious – and often searing – political and historical commentary, it is also fired with an irrepressible joie de vivre. Amidst all her many media, and she is primarily a painter and one whose formal acuity and love of colour and pattern runs across whatever surface she happens to be using. 

Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016, Invisible Strategies, Modern Art Oxford Credit: Edmund Blok/Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens

Rather than berating her audience in strident ways, she prefers to engage them. “ 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 that I want to make,” she says. “You can’t underestimate the energy and intelligence of an audience…you've got to draw them in.” 

Navigation Charts is at Spike Island until March 26; 133 Cumberland Road, Bristol, BS1 6UX; spikeisland.org.uk
The Place is Here is at Nottingham Contemporary until April 30; Weekday Cross, Nottingham, NG1 2GB; nottinghamcontemporary.org
Invisible Strategies is at Modern Art Oxford until April 30; 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford, OX1 1BP; modernartoxford.org.uk

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