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Features / Art

Artist Lubaina Himid on making visible the “invisible histories” of black artists

For Lubaina Himid making art has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. “I’m not sure what I’d do if I wasn’t an artist. I’ve done a lot of things like working in art galleries as an exhibition officer, as a curator, and in the early days as a waitress – you know, all that stuff you do when you’re in your 20s while all the time making art,” she says.

Lubaina grew up in a creative household with her mother, a former textile designer, where patterns and colours formed the backdrop of her childhood after moving to Britain from Zanzibar in 1954 after the death of her father when she was just four months old. Later, during the 70s Lubaina went to art school to study theatre design at Wimbledon and in the 80s moved on to do an MA at the Royal College of Art.

This focus of her work was part of the catalyst of Lubaina’s pioneering efforts throughout the 80s which saw her organise exhibitions of work by her peers, who she felt were under-represented in the contemporary art scene. Her work and the many artists she worked alongside, would later be recognised as the British Black Arts Movement, a radical political art movement that was inspired by anti-racist discourse and feminist critique, which “sought to highlight issues of race and gender and the politics of representation”.

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Lubaina Himid: Le Rodeur: (The Lock), 2016. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens

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Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies, Modern Art Oxford

“I suppose we might call it a movement now, but back then I think we were just a huge group people working in different cities in the UK, all art school trained but, like many artists, didn’t know how to get exposure, how to make a difference,” says Lubaina. “When I first started making art, I was like a lot of black artists at the time – we were simply trying to make ourselves visible. We were visible in the street but we weren’t on the television or the newspapers or media at all.

“I guess what’s changed over the years is black people have started to become more visible. You look at the work now and it’s about filling the gaps in history. There are the written histories, the taught histories and then there are the experienced histories, which you have to interpret and that’s possible when you’re an artist.”

The “pop-up” exhibitions Lubaina and her fellow artists organised took place in community centres and libraries and eventually led to securing big shows at Whitechapel and the Hayward Gallery. “It grew into something very vibrant and active, and most of us were politically motivated, after all we’d come from the same fury about our invisibility,” Lubaina explains. “As artists, we did it in our own way, we wanted to interrupt art history. However we did it in a very sedate way, but we were very determined. We’d come at the challenge of showing and making work and talking about it from different political and creative directions.”

“I don’t think we understood it at all, but in a way, because of our energetic and persistent approach we succeeded in changing some things.”

– Lubaina Himid

During that time Lubaina and her peers, including artists Sonia Boyce, Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper and Donald Rodney, found making the difference they desired would take time. “You have to learn a lot about how the art world works before you can succeed in making those interventions. But I would say that you’ve got to try it. Try it with the innocence of youth and energy,” says Lubaina. “I don’t think we understood it at all, but in a way, because of our energetic and persistent approach we succeeded in changing some things.”

Being part of a movement and essentially a spokesperson for what a group is fighting for is a challenge Lubaina has continually encountered. “It’s been quite difficult to just talk about the work,” she says. “We talk about the politics, the history, the sociology of it all but not a lot of time has been spent by writers and critics discussing the stuff itself, and I think that’s sort of missing.

“When an audience is in the room with the work, that’s what they’re engaged with. Do they like it? What attracts them to it? What makes them curious and stay in the room? It’s the work. In a sense that’s what’s missing in discussions about the whole movement. A huge amount of us are still going and so much of the work is still really interesting – these shows will really show that.”

Lubaina is referencing the trio of shows taking place across the UK, which kicked off this month. The artist has been working towards two solo shows at Modern Art Oxford and Spike Island in Bristol, which opened late January and a group show at Nottingham Contemporary, which brings together more than 30 artists associated with the movement, opening early February. The shows offer overdue recognition, for both Lubaina and her fellow artists, in a way that picks out recurring patterns and notions in the artist’s work and presents them boldly and unapologetically within the walls of each gallery.

The Oxford show, Invisible Strategies offers a broader look at several strands of Lubaina’s work from the 1980s to the present day. The artist’s paintings, sculptures and ceramics pop against the white-washed walls of the gallery. Her painterly style is translated into multiple mediums as she “complicates preconceptions” by offering “historical and contemporary stories of racial bias and acts of violence inflicted upon oppressed communities”.

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Lubaina Himid: Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens

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Lubaina Himid: Freedom and Change, 1984. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens

In one part of the show we see Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, a series of 100 plates, jugs and tureens, which Lubaina has painted over with caricatures. “I’m documenting the moment in Lancaster’s history where it was the main town that made slave ships. The series is about the dismay those ship builders and merchants felt when the acts of parliament abolishing slavery came to pass,” explains Lubaina. Depicting scenes of slave markets and grotesque portraits of white aristocrats, the traditional, milky bone china takes on a new meaning in this compelling body of work.

Another striking project is the ongoing series Negatives Positives started in 2007. For ten years Lubaina has painted over pages of The Guardian newspaper to highlight images of black people she feels are implicitly prejudicial. This visual research dissects a part of our visual culture in a provocative and striking way that encourages blunt conversation. “The invented and borrowed patterns on each page are painted to highlight this strange and inappropriate use of people as signifiers,” she explains. “Everyday in Britain even the ’liberal’ press is simultaneously visualising and making invisible black peoples’ lives.”

Lubaina’s work highlights the imbalance, the inconsistencies in society and its continued prejudices. The beauty, in its ability to present it to viewers in a beguiling yet matter-of-fact way, cannot be ignored. Her larger scale paintings in the main room are the essence of this, most significantly in Freedom and Change from 1984. The mixed media work appropriates the female figures in Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) from 1922, into black women, eloquently yet humorously “subverting one of the most canonical paintings in the Western art history”.

Lubaina’s thought process is what makes these works so captivating and rich. For last 25 years she’s been teaching and is currently professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire, which has provided her with the opportunity to talk to student and artists, and think about her work in a different way. “I spend a lot of my time thinking because I can’t always spend the time making,” she says. “I make notes, rubbish drawings on little pieces of paper and things gradually build up that way.”

“There’s a big series I’ve made at the Bristol show called Naming the Money, where I made lots of paperworks that act like working drawings. As I’m reading and listening to stuff I build up the confidence in an idea before making the finished thing.”

The final piece sits within Spike Island’s warehouse-like space, which gives the work, and the pieces that surround it, room to breathe. Naming the Money, is 100 life-size wooden painted cut-outs and the figures represent 100 African slaves in the royal courts of 18th Century Europe, put to work as ceramicists, toy makers, dog trainers, dancers and shoemakers. “They are the epitome of being taken from somewhere and having to make your life work somewhere else,” explains Lubaina. The scale and detail is impressive, and instantly absorbs the viewer as you walk through the crowd of cut-outs and read small snippets of their past affixed to the other, unpainted side.

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Lubaina Himid: Plan B, Everybody Is, 1999/2000. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens

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Lubaina Himid: Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (detail), 2007. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens.

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Lubaina Himid: Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (detail), 2007. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens.

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“I’m also showing a work called Cotton.com, which is a series of 18 black and white paintings, which are about the sorts of conversations that may have taken place between the slaves of South Carolina and the cotton workers of Lancaster,” says Lubaina. A rarely acknowledged part of history, workers in Lancashire’s cotton mills defended the lives of African slaves across the Atlantic after the realisation that the enforced labour of cotton pickers on American plantations were a driving force behind the flourishing industrial scene in Britain.

The overarching message in both the Oxford and Bristol shows, and Lubaina’s work as a whole, is the fact that not enough has been done yet. “I’m still irritated by a feeling or voice that says ‘oh well, we’ve achieved everything now’, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t think so’. We haven’t got as far as we need to get otherwise we wouldn’t need to be still making these show and talking about these issues.

“The work still needs making, those things still need saying. I’ve never made work that was strong in that political way, like Eddie Chambers or Keith Piper would make it about, which is the killing of black men on the streets every day. I never made that kind of work because that wasn’t my everyday experience. I make work much more about the missing gaps in the culture. I think it’s hard hitting because it makes black people feel comfortable and it sometimes makes the people with the power to change feel a little less comfortable. Ultimately it’s work made for black people to know that somebody is thinking the same thing.”

Invisible Strategies at Modern Art Oxford is on now until 30 April 2017. Navigation Charts at Spike Island Bristol is on now until 26 March 2017. The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary opens to the public 4 February until 30 April 2017.

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Lubaina Himid: Navigation Charts, Spike Island

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Lubaina Himid: Drowned Orchard: Secret Boatyard. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens.

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Lubaina Himid: Naming the Money (2004). Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens.

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Lubaina Himid: A Fashionable Marriage (1986). Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens.