Challenging perspectives on old narratives
"The enforced labour of cotton pickers on the American plantations underpinned the economic successes of the Industrial Revolution"
Lubaina Himid is a British artist who lives and works in the North of England.
She has been a pioneer of the Black Arts Movement challenging stereotypical depictions of black figures and women in art history, championing the contribution of black voices in the contemporary art scene, and highlighting the contributions that people from the African diaspora have made to European cities.
The current exhibition at Modern Art Oxford brings together a variety of pieces from throughout Himid’s career as she has worked to change this perceived misrepresentation through the opening of minds and conversations. And it’s an eye-opener.
In the main gallery the first piece to greet you is Materials of Freedom and Change, a picture that to appreciate it properly you should see alongside an iconic picture by Picasso, painted in 1922: it’s almost a postcard of two women racing on a beach. They’re exuberant and yet have traditional religious connotations and Picasso’s original was described by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian as ‘a monument to the new freedoms that swept the world [after the First World War]’. The description seems appropriate too to artist Lubaina Himid’s vision, as she rethinks the views of art historians and the role of museums over the last generation, these women are personifications of freedom and change.
Himid’s take is large and subversive, and created in the mixed materials used to construct sets for the theatre (she originally trained as a theatre designer) it sets the stage for the ideas that underlie her work, offering alternative perspectives and different protagonists. It’s a reminder that black women too ‘ran’ through history alongside the Caucasians that are the subjects of almost all European art.
This main gallery is populated by a dozen or so powerful paintings: they are highly coloured, reminiscent of African fabrics, and Himid considers the patterns on a cloth to hold clues to events. In the second room of the exhibition she explores the notion that textile design can be a secret yet visible language between women, and the framed works hold messages of freedom and change as well as the importance of friendship. The use of fabric here could also be a tribute to an often forgotten fact that the enforced labour of cotton pickers on the American plantations underpinned the economic successes of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and that, in a historic moment of solidarity between the British working class and their peers across the Atlantic, the workers of Lancashire’s cotton mills in the 19th century rose up in support of the anti-slavery movement.
If you take the time to read the information alongside each of the exhibits, you’ll learn of the mass murder of a number of slaves who became blind on board a ship and were thrown overboard, an act we only know of because it appears recorded in an insurance ledger. And there is other thought-provoking commentary alongside the painting Ankle Deep on maps as a symbol of colonialism. Maps are how the world is organised: whoever controls the map retains the power over the land.
The viewer is invited to join in the discussion from the paintings in the first room through into the last space which is ripe for debate. Here Himid seeks to highlight the contradiction she sees today between the visibility of black people and their experience in the everyday white Western world and yet the lack of recognition and displacement of the contribution of African people to British culture: her concern is clear in a series of amended newspaper pages called Negative Positive. This series asks the question whether photos of black achievers in sport, politics, film and other fields are routinely presented on pages with hateful headlines with which they appear to be associated through spatial proximity.
Swallow Hard: A Lancaster dinner service is a satirical display in which a banquet’s-worth of eclectic porcelain has been painted with figures from 18th century society and the faces of the slaves that underpinned their grand existences. Unseen, the names of real people have been painted inside, a reminder of their importance to the rich mill-owners and cotton manufacturing families in the north of England.
In 1807, the transatlantic slave trade was made illegal throughout the British Empire but the ‘owning’ of slaves was not abolished until 1834. Until this time, people could be collected like crockery and with the piece Mr Salt’s Collection which shows four big urns and jugs collected from elsewhere in the world, Himid is critical of museums as hoards of goods taken for the Western World from other cultures.
Step sideways into a side room, however, and you’ll be infused with a calming turquoise from strikingly different contemplative abstracts that represent the waves of the journeys over the sea, including her own – she left the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar as a baby and returned some 43 years later. It’s a gentle space to sit and contemplate the stark messages encapsulated in this show.
For more of Himid’s work, head to Nottingham where she is part of a group exhibition bringing together work of more than 25 artists associated with the Black Arts Movement in Britain, and at Spike Island in Bristol, Britain’s leading slave port in the 18th century, an installation of Himid’s Naming the Money is on show. Described as spectacular, 100 life-size cut-out figures fill the main space with colour. Representing African slaves in the royal courts of 18th century Europe, each has their own ‘voice’, their own African names and pasts, and the new names and professions imposed upon them set to a sombre soundtrack. We can only imagine their personal journeys, but their existence is commemorated in Himid’s continued work within the British art scene to see that their contributions to the world today are not overlooked.
Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies is at Modern Art Oxford until 30th April.
Navigation Charts runs until 26th March at Spike Island, Bristol.
The Place Is Here runs until 30th April at Nottingham Contemporary.
Top Image – Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change, 1984. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens
Below – Lubaina Himid, Zanzibar – Sea: Wave Goodbye Say Hello, 1999. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens
Bottom – Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: (The Lock), 2016. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens
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