ZANZIBAR-born, Lancashire-based artist Lubaina Himid showcases her largest ever solo exhibition at the Tate Modern. Humid’s work comes sweeping through the capitals institution, demanding attention and doing what contemporary art does best—asking valid questions that are at once glaringly obvious and yet absent from the contemporary conversation.
Everywhere you turn in this exhibition, a question is posed as the title of each room. From the East African Kanga style flags, How Do You Spell Change? that greet us outside the exhibition, to the initial question inside the exhibit, We Live In Clothes, We Live In Buildings-Do They Fit Us?
Here we are met with a tongue in cheek adaptation of the familiar Health and Safety guidelines, except this time Metal Handkerchiefs 2019 spell, Allow For Short Breaks, or Ensure For Sufficient Slack. Across this room Himid begs the questions, “What kind of buildings do women want to live and work in? Has anyone ever asked us?”
Here lies the very core of Himid’s work, the human centric approach—“I have always thought of my work as starting when people get to see it. For me nothing starts until then.” Empathy and compassion for others runs both ways in Himid’s work, she needs her art to be seen to exist, just as much as she needs to raise awareness for those that exist but are not celebrated. We see this most prominently in Men In Drawers, quite literally what it says on the tin, drawers that hold “memories of people whose names no one had bothered to write down.”
Drawers, jelly moulds, wicker baskets, rubber gloves and more, are all materials Himid isn’t shy of using throughout her four decade long career. Drawing from her theatrical training, for Himid, art is “A stage for considering the personal and the political.” We see this most clearly in A Fashionable Marriage 1984-6, which spans “a furious caricature of the day”, a tableau of the times with an almost fable like quality.
The clear narrative across all of Humid’s work offers an accessible and interactive essence to the viewer. “The audience member is in the paintings…the experience should be similar to entering a room and deciding what you’re going to do, how you will react and interact.” For example, we interact to the women in Himid’s work throughout the 1990’s, they are the decision makers sat around a table, offering us a seat to join in with the conversation.
Again we react with Himid’s lurid choice of colour palette in the room How Do You Distinguish Safety From Danger? Each painting warns us of danger with its nightmarish lime green overlaid with dark foreboding shadows. Geometric forms are a constant across Himid’s art, a nod to her textile designer mother, “Patterns occur when I am talking to myself and trying to make visual the music, the sound, the noise and the poetry which underpins all of my work.”
The noise and poetry come to life in What Does Love Sound Like?, a room devoted to Himid’s experiments in voice recording, most recently with artist Magda Stawarska-Beavan. “We feel like composers, you know. When we were running sound tests in the gallery it felt like Magda and I, with the museum team, had managed to weave together all of the sound…So the whole exhibition is now a composition.”
Her compositions feel spectacularly otherworldly and timeless in Himid’s later series of works, Le Rodeur 2016. This time her tableau of characters are arranged on oil and canvas, dressed in chic, modern silhouettes, interacting with one another in various dignified positions.
Le Rodeur is in fact the name of the 1819 slave ship that caught a severe illness, causing blindness for almost everyone on board. As a result, the captain decided to throw 39 African men and women overboard. At a glance, the Le Rodeur series appears serene in its curvilinear, rhythm formations, but on closer appearance we see the devastating cracks come through.
Like a child in the back seat of a long car journey, Himid is always challenging us on what is deemed acceptable as the norm, testing our understanding of what is right and wrong. Himid zooms in on uncomfortable truths, “The work is not meant to comfort you or me, but it might sometimes remind us about what we already know, what might be useful to have remembered about the last crisis in order to avoid too much devastation in the midst of the next.”
Speaking of crisis, we too are collectively responding to one. Historically speaking, post upheavals and catastrophe, lateral change has always been implemented, therefore there’s no better time to exhibit such an artist.
From her position as a key player in the British Black Arts movement of the 1980’s, to winning the Turner Prize in 2017, Himid’s work is finally given the world stage she deserves at the Tate Modern. We enter stage right curious and exit stage left inspired to create change.
by Charlie Newman
Lubaina Himid is on at The Tate Modern until July 3, 2022
More information and tickets is available here Tate.