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Issue 225

Lubaina Himid: All the World’s a Stage

An overdue show at Tate Modern, London, focuses on the artist’s preoccupation with theatre but fails to enliven her previous triumphs

BY Allie Biswas in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 05 JAN 22

During a talk held on the occasion of her 2017 exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, Lubaina Himid reflected on her experiences at art school in the 1970s. Describing herself as ‘unspeakably ambitious’, she had wanted to be an artist ‘from very early on, who changed things’. Believing theatre to be a more successful means of realizing politically driven ideas in the presence of an audience, Himid went on to study theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art, graduating in 1976. By the beginning of the next decade, she had repositioned herself as a painter, but continued to draw on her set-design training and her belief in theatre.

Taking Himid’s preoccupation with theatre as its premise, the artist’s current exhibition at Tate Modern is the most extensive presentation of her work to date and an overdue show for the 67 year old, who was the oldest artist and first Black woman to win the Turner Prize in 2017. Envisaged as an exhibition that unfolds across several ‘scenes’, the show places the visitor at the centre of this so-called stage, which warrants active participation – or, at least, that’s the intention. To underline this point, the booklet accompanying the show opens with ‘Audiences as Performers’. Himid’s companion text functions as a to-do list for viewers as they traverse the exhibition. (What would I do in this situation? What difference can I make?) The questions continue, written out across the walls and on flags that hang above. Here is an exhibition that is staged around questions, quite literally. Himid’s ideas about the possibilities of art – of what it might achieve – appear to stretch far. 

Lubaina Himid
Lubaina Himid, Between the Two my Heart is Balanced, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 1.2 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: © the artist and Tate

The artist’s painted and sewn statements point to prevailing themes in her practice, which largely centre around personal and collective attempts at belonging. Himid has never been concerned with reiterating trauma, though she addresses the legacies of slavery as part of her underlying objective to give visibility to the African diaspora. In an interview with The Observer in 2017, the artist likened her work to a handbook, thinking of her practice as ‘a sort of car manual – to deal with the ghosts of what has happened’. The works at Tate that most strongly evoke Himid’s own story are the most tangible in this respect: portrayals of female companionship (Ankledeep, 1991) or architectural abstractions in which pattern is the most dominant force (Window Box/Rough Sea, 1998) – the latter motif a reference to her textile-designer mother.

Himid was born in Zanzibar to a Black African father and white British mother. She continuously returns to the memory of this island in the Indian Ocean, which she left as a baby, following her father’s premature death. Signalled by the recurring presence of the sea, whether turbulent waves or serene strips of flatwater, the artist’s lost homeland appears throughout the exhibition, embodying a previous life that continues to haunt the present. In Between the Two my Heart Is Balanced (1991), a pair of women navigate choppy waters in a small rowboat as they tear up a pile of maps, symbolically overthrowing the travel routes that formed the Middle Passage. The figures are based on Himid and her partner at the time, the artist Maud Sulter. The painting belongs to the ‘Revenge’ series (1992), in which Black women occupy the role of the protagonist. Another work from this group, Act One No Maps (1991), depicts a female couple looking expectantly out onto a vibrant seascape from their balcony seats at the theatre – the only direct reference to the show’s overarching theme. The exhibition literature doesn’t allude to biographical detail or background context, discussing instead the ‘strategizing’ between Himid’s female characters as they work together to navigate a complex future. By imbuing her individual protagonists with agency, greater collective power is always reached.

Lubaina Himid
Lubaina Himid, Man in a Shirt Drawer, 1991, acrylic paint, wooden drawer and brass handles, 47 × 39 × 20 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Tate

The young Black men who stand together idly and awkwardly in Himid’s recent portraits, such as Remove from the Heat (2019), are as formally striking as her representations of women. Yet, the undeniable visual allure of these images doesn’t necessarily equate with vivid storytelling. According to Himid, the youthful figures dressed in beautiful, tailored clothes are pastry chefs, the titles of the works lifted from recipe books. How do these dandies relate to her other protagonists? And why is one of them wearing a white mask (Cover the Surface, 2019)? Their stories are to be deduced by the viewer. Still, the inscrutability of these characters ultimately becomes a disservice, leaving them blank rather than full of possibility.

The cut-out figures that first gained Himid attention in the 1980s connect most directly to her theatrical training. These painted cardboard and plywood constructions – resembling the two-dimensional scenery of stage sets – relate to the artist’s definition of herself as ‘a political strategist using visual language’ (The Observer, 2017). Arguably her best-known installation, A Fashionable Marriage (1984–86) is a resounding critique of Thatcherite Britain and the exclusionary practices of the London art world with which Himid was all too familiar. (She graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1984, having submitted her thesis on ‘Young Black Artists in Britain Today’ – at the time considered, as she told frieze in 2016, ‘the maddest and most impossible idea imaginable’). Taking inspiration from the 18th-century painter William Hogarth, whose satirical tableaux have remained a longstanding source, Himid’s line-up of life-size characters engendered contentious debate when first exhibited at London’s Pentonville Gallery in 1986. (Sarah Kent wrote in Time Out at the time: ‘Lubaina spits her rage and sprays her bullets too widely.’) However, the re-creation of this installation at Tate appears benign, its dramatic impact diluted. The curatorial decision to situate the work in the corner of the room with the figures spaced out to reveal their blank reverse sides to the viewer denies any spectacle. Their cartoonish physiques appear ineffectual. Devoid of the astringency that initially propelled the work, the installation seems unable to activate the space within which it stands.

Lubaina Himid
Lubaina Himid, Metal Handkerchief - Saw/Flag, 2019, acrylic on metal, 49 × 54. Courtesy: the artist and Hollybush Gardens

A Fashionable Marriage speaks to Himid’s initial aspirations to question what art might achieve in this world. While the narratives in her work have become more subtle as her practice has evolved, the objective to create and encourage change remains at its core. The exhibition’s penultimate gallery displays her ‘Le Rodeur’ (2016) series of paintings, which take Hogarth’s idea of a ‘progress’ – a visual story told across multiple images. The cycle’s title references a French ship that set sail for Guadeloupe from the Bight of Biafra in 1819, from which 36 enslaved people afflicted by illness were thrown overboard to drown. One painting from the series, The Cabin (2016–17), is a rearrangement of a composition by Hogarth (Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin, 1715–47), in which Himid removes nearly all figures from the scene, leaving only two Black men as its sole protagonists. The privilege politics are inverted, allowing the crew’s staff (a chef and a musician) to share a moment. Works such as these, lessons in how to tell a story differently, leave the most powerful impression.

‘Lubaina Himid’ is at Tate Modern, London, until 2 October 2022

Main image: Lubaina Himid, Ball on Shipboard (detail), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 1.8 × 2.4 m. Courtesy: © the artist and Rennie Collection, Vancouver 

Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980 with Mark Godfrey, published in June 2021. She is based in London, UK.