Women in the Arts: Lubaina Himid on the Long Road to Winning the 2017 Turner Prize

‘Mentorship? I don’t think I even knew what the word meant!’

BY Amy Sherlock AND Lubaina Himid in Interviews | 17 SEP 18

Amy Sherlock  When you were starting out as an artist, did you feel there was much support from older women in the field? Did you have any mentors?

Lubaina Himid  I left art school in 1976. I’d been studying theatre design, which is quite a particular way of starting out. I wanted to work in the world of theatre and theatre design and, really, there was nothing, there were no possibilities or official opportunities.       

Mentorship? I don’t think I even knew what the word meant! All my tutors were men. Most of the students were women, but the stars of the course were men. There were about seven male students and probably 15, 17, women. We were essentially their servants: we lifted things, we made things, we worked for them even on the course. In the proper sense of the word, rather than the sexual sense, the tutors were grooming the males students to be theatre designers like them. I never worked as an assistant to any of my tutors because the men were doing that. I didn’t make any useful connections whatsoever while I was at art school: I didn’t know that was the thing I should have been doing.

I absolutely wanted to work in theatre. When I left art school, I worked for a small fringe company, which was run by women. At the same time, I was waitressing: that was my job for five years or so. With the theatre company, we were kind of all in it together. There was a lot of conversation that went on, but no real role models or any kind of guidance or advice. And I’m not saying: ‘Oh, we didn’t need it, we were strong enough, we managed by ourselves.’ It was murderously difficult. And we didn’t manage by ourselves.

I think I have probably spent a good part of my life trying to readdress that imbalance: working in an art school because I had a terrible time in art school. Twice.  

AS  When you decide to start making artworks rather than designing sets? Was there a transitional moment?

LH  I started to design the insides of restaurants. I had been working in a restaurant in Waterloo and the owner set up a new place in Covent Garden called Tuttons (it’s still there); I designed the interior. Because of that, I began to think about being an artist rather than or, rather, a curator (though that wasn’t what I called it by any stretch of any imagination), because I was putting on exhibitions at the same time.

I suppose, in the general sense, one had the spirit of late 1970s feminism … But in 1976, I was only 22 and the people really moving things forward were a little bit older than me. The possibilities of change were there in the world – in the news and in the books I was reading. But not really in the every day.

I knew that there were black artists out there, even though, at that stage, I didn’t know who they were.

AS  Later, in the 1980s, you became an active member of what came to be known as the Black Art Group: how important was that peer group in terms of support and your development as an artist?

LH  I didn’t meet those people, whom I have been working with ever since, until about 1981. I applied to the Royal College of Art to write a thesis on young black artists in Britain today. I knew that there were black artists out there, even though, at that stage, I didn’t know who they were. I knew I couldn’t be the only one – although people would actually say to me: Black people don’t make art.

Then I found artists like Eddie Chambers, Claudette Johnson, Keith Piper and Marlene Smith who were all up and running and doing things already. They were setting up the Black Art Group. I went to their conferences and their meetings. But it got to 1982, ’83, and I realised we were still kind of servicing what the men were doing – not in the way that I was at art school, actually lifting and carrying, but we were a bit behind the scenes, although weremaking work that was equally as strong.

That’s when I decided that I was going to be the mentor even if I didn’t know what mentoring was. And I guess that’s what I’ve done ever since. Most of the time, what women need is to be listened to. It’s almost as simple as that. 

AS  When did you start teaching?

LH  After I left the Royal College in 1984, I did bits and pieces of teaching until about 1990, when I left London to do some exhibition officer work – I suppose now you would call it curating – at Rochdale Art Gallery. The woman that ran the gallery was called Jill Morgan: she was the same age as me but she had much more experience of the art world. She taught me about how systems worked and how to negotiate the day to day: that was probably the first bit of mentoring I had.

 I left after a couple of years because it was hard to make work and do that sort of job at the same time, and then went into teaching at the University of Central Lancashire, in Preston.

At that moment, in the 1990s, there was a total lack of women teaching, especially in the positions that involved writing the courses or setting the timetables, where the power actually lies. But there were tonnes of women students. In a way, I found myself, in exactly the same place as when I’d left art school in 1976: all those years had gone by and female students were in the same position.      

AS  When did that begin to change? Has it changed?

LH   I don’t think it’s changed, do you? It’s absolutely true that there are more women fronting everything: TV programmes, galleries, courses, all sorts of organizations. But, you know, if you turn on Radio 3, the music is still by the men it was always by. If you turn on Radio 6, the music is by the men it was always by. But Mary Anne Hobbs or Kathryn Tickell might be presenting the programme.

AS    And that analogy applies equally to the art world?

LH   Absolutely, yes. I would still say the people who are actually shaking and moving – especially when it comes to moving the money about – are, by and large, men.

The secret to change is to talk to each other about your experience or the mistakes you’ve made or a good way of doing it.

AS   How do you think we change that?

LH  I think more talking has to go on between women. We too often follow that divide and rule thing, where we don’t tell each other about certain strategies might be useful, or about what has happened to us or what was said to us.

That’s why I still talk to artists every day and why I have the ‘Making Histories Visible’ archive at the university. I want to say: Look! This is how we did it. And this was a bit shonky, this work wasn’t all that good; I’ve kept the letters we got written to us and that we wrote, because I think it’s important to show people how it is, how is was.

I had no idea how the art world really works, not even remotely, until I started to talk to the women at Hollybush Gardens, who now represent me. I didn’t really understand that no one had ever heard of me. I had been showing at museums all over Britain, and all sorts of institutions owned my work, but I didn’t understand what that meant – that having an exhibition at Birmingham Art Gallery was not the same as having a show in a commercial gallery in London. That sounds pretty naïve, but I had spent my whole life thinking you just had to find out things for yourself. Which is ridiculous. It’s not actually how the world works. The secret to change is to talk to each other about your experience or the mistakes you’ve made or a good way of doing it.

AS  Do you think the situation isstill more difficult for young black female artists than for female artists in general?

LH  I don’t think those sorts of comparisons – who’s got it more difficult than whom? – are helpful. To be honest, even a lot of white guys have got it really difficult. If you want to be an artist, there are mad and stupid things that you have to do; it’s not easy! But I think you’d only have to look at the evidence to see that it’s more difficult for a young black woman to make it as an artist.

Me winning the Turner Prize does not mean we’ve made it. It’s a pity that it could ever be touted as such, because it probably means that there’ll be a bloody great gap before anything like it happens again.

AS  Are you still close to Marlene Smith, Claudette Johnson, all of those people?

LH  Oh, yes. Marlene Smith is staying in my house at the moment and working in the archives in Preston. I was out watching rubbish movies with Ingrid Pollard last week. Claudette Johnson is now showing with Hollybush Gardens. I am in touch with them all the time. They come up and work in the print room with the artists that I work with at the university. So I’m joining up these two strands of mentoring – in inverted commas – that I’ve been doing for the last 30 years.

I’m also working with women like Christine Eyene [one of the curators of the 10th Dak’Art Biennial in 2012 and curator of the 4th Casablanca Biennial, later this year], who is a research fellow in my department. And Zoe Whitley, the Tate Modern curator, who worked on last year’s ‘Soul of a Nation’ exhibition, is doing her PhD with me. We are a strange, Preston-based set of very cool black women activists. Having conversations with these younger women about how to move things forward has been incredibly useful. It’s in those kinds of atmospheres that things can happen.

The way to stop sexual harassment is with the everyday truths that we tell each other about what’s happened to us.

AS   What are your thoughts about #MeToo and #NotSurprised? 

LH   I think #MeToo absolutely works as a campaign because it shows that speaking out about sexual harassment and sexual abuse can help to stop it.

But, following on from what I was saying earlier, simultaneous to that, women have to tell each other about what’s happened or what’s happening in the everyday. You have to be on the phone to your friends, to your sister, to your mother, your colleagues. You have to say this happened to me yesterday, and it was this person. And the men have to know, too.

AS  I think that’s an important point: hopefully,the big attention-grabbing stories allow the everyday stories to be spoken, all the time.

LH  The way to stop sexual harassment is with the everyday truths that we tell each other about what’s happened to us. If everybody knows, it’s harder for these things to continue.

Main image: Lubaina Himid photographed by Ingrid Pollard. Courtesy: Hollybush Gardens, London

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

Lubaina Himid is an artist and cultural activist. Her show ‘Make Do and Mend’ is on view at the Flag Foundation, New York, USA, from 12 September 2024 until 18 January 2025.