Political Activism in Paint:
an interview with Lubaina Himid

Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016 Acrylic on canvas 72 × 96 1/10 × 2 in

Lubaina Himid won’t read this article. As she will tell me later, the debates that happen in the headlines often represent the aspects she finds least important in her own practice. It is precisely her lack of interest in superficial debate that instils her work with a sense of energetic focus that she has held to steadfastly across four decades.

Born in Zanzibar and raised in Britain, Lubaina Himid trained in theatre design, and began curating exhibitions of her own work alongside other black artists in the 1980s. Her breakthrough shows, Five Black Women at the Africa Centre, London (1983) and The Thin Black Line at the I.C.A. London (1985) brought a forthright insistence on the reinsertion of black histories and identities into the forefront of the British art scene.

As the rise of the political right throughout the 1980s gave way to a decade of giddy capitalism, it was the Young British Artists, whose work fêted commercialism, which captured the imagination of the art market. Soaring valuations, the elevation of the art dealer as expert and curator, and controversial nominations for the Turner Prize itself satisfied a taste for sensationalism that was incompatible with the eminently serious work being made by Himid and her peers.

Installation view: Lubaina Himid, Spike Island, Bristol. January – March 2017

As a result, it is only recently that her work is being processed in new contexts. In 2017, three major solo exhibitions – Invisible Strategies at Modern Art Oxford, Navigation Charts at Spike Island, and The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary were cited in her Turner Prize nomination, for which she has received wide coverage, largely focused around her identity as a 63 year old black woman.

Her work has consistently moved in resistance to the prevailing narrative of the institutional art world, and her impact on increased visibility for black artists is difficult to overestimate. She frequently focuses on the experience of perceiving oneself as an ‘other’, both on the museum walls and in the pages of the newspaper. Her installations – immersive society paintings – make mere observation impossible; we have to join the party to make any sense of it all.  

Throughout a wide-ranging conversation, Himid returned repeatedly to the importance of dialogue: with her audience, her friends and her students.

[Siobhán Forshaw]: The context for this interview is your nomination for the Turner Prize. This year, Tate has expanded the eligibility criteria for nominees. This is apparently an acknowledgement that people are never too old to ‘experience a breakthrough in their work’. Do you feel the last twelve months has signified this major breakthrough for you?

[Lubaina Himid]: The strange thing is, of course, that the 2017 shows were showing work from the last forty years. Within them, there was new work – Le Rodeur (2016) – and in some sense those paintings were a breakthrough, but the shows themselves represented forty years’ work. So it is peculiar. And it makes preparation for the Turner Prize show quite difficult.

What happened with those exhibitions is that I had some really intense, intelligent conversations with the curators, and so there were ways in which those works were presented that were completely different to the ways they had been originally shown. Many of those works were made in response to, and displayed within, the context of the museum. To show that work in galleries is very rare for me. Very often, the paintings were to do with my relationship with audiences: people who come to museums and have chance encounters with my work, which has often been developed as a counter to objects already in the museum.

[SF]: So, in fact, it’s the way that people are encountering your work now that is the big breakthrough?

[LH]: I think so, yeah. I think that’s what the panel have seen.

[SF]: Your cohort of nominees all have heritage outside the UK, and some of their work has been interested in issues of cultural identity and heritage, particularly that of Hurvin Anderson and yourself. In these quite serious times, when debates around identity seem at once to be becoming more intelligent and complicated (e.g. intersectionality in feminism) and at the same time more blunt and defensive (e.g. narratives around Brexit), do you think the Turner Prize is trying to make any particular point alongside the recognition of great work?

[LH]: I feel that first and foremost, it looks as if they decided this time to have some deeper conversations about art. I think actually you would find it really difficult to talk to the other three about ‘identity’. The work they make is so subtle and nuanced, and was never part of a political activism. Mine utterly was political activism in paint. But I think that it is such a good set of nominees. And there are so many complex questions that can be asked with all four of the artists. I think that the panel were trying to bring that out. The press want one thing, but the actual conversations that are going on are really about the work and the ideas – all the stuff about age and identity is just a press thing. Utterly.

[SF]: Do you think these issues are being talked about too much?

Lubaina Himid, Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, 2007

[LH]: It’s just not interesting! If it was interesting, then every time you heard about Paula Rego, Bridget Riley, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, everyone would talk about how old they are – but nobody does. Nobody talks about ‘veteran artist Bridget Riley’ – she’s twenty years older than I am. So it’s just the least interesting thing. They needn’t give the impression that I wasn’t doing any painting until I reached retirement age.

[SF]: There’s a clear interest in dialogue with the viewer in your work (related I guess to your beginnings in theatre design) – your Guardian Archive skewers how even the liberal media (and its readers) still contribute to racist structures, through the way they write stories about people of colour.

There is still a huge accessibility problem in art galleries and museums – is it a conflict for you, knowing that a large proportion of visitors to the galleries you show work in are likely to be white, and does it have an impact on the kind of work you make?  

[LH]: The Guardian pieces were made more as an archive – collected over the last decade. They were made as me trying to make sure I wasn’t going mad. Though of course the process itself did send me slightly crazy. So in that case, absolutely – it’s aimed at the Guardian reader. But you have to understand that all the black people I know read The Guardian. Yes, the majority of readers are the white, middle-class, left-leaning sort, but that’s because there are more white people than black people. All the artists I know aren’t picking up The Times, or The Daily Mail, they’re picking up The Guardian.

When we pick up that paper to read the news, we are faced with ourselves, reinterpreted, and it’s so subtle, and so clever, and sometimes so funny, that it enters one’s psyche. And it happens every day. The whole point of the work is so that when a black person is in that space, we see ourselves – we see the ordinary, everyday things that we are concerned by. It’s those conversations with my fellow diasporans that are important to me – we have built this place, this country, and yet we are not visible. They are who the work is for. And for myself, of course, so that I can go into museums, and see myself.

[SF]: Your work as an artist has always developed alongside an instinct for mentorship, stewardship of other artists – as a curator/organiser of exhibitions and also as a teacher. How does curating and teaching relate to your life and practice?

[LH]: Well, I suppose some of the reason why that works is because I was trained as a theatre designer, not as a fine artist, so there wasn’t the same focus on pondering my inner thoughts. But [curating and teaching] is never about that; it’s about changing systems or highlighting what is missing. It’s a strategic practice. And so talking to artists all day every day and getting paid for it – who wouldn’t want to do that? It doesn’t matter that those artists have sometimes been pre-degree artists who don’t know the difference between an HB or a 2B pencil, or sometimes are artists who are doing their MA or PhD, way ahead of me in terms of their theoretical understanding. I’ve spent the last thirty years just learning stuff all the time. Teaching is about listening to what artists have to say. It’s not about telling them things. It’s not about telling them how to make a painting, but about how to think differently. And the older I get, and the younger my students are in relation to me, the more I learn, actually, which sort of answers your question.  

Installation view: Lubaina Himid, Spike Island, Bristol. January – March 2017

[SF]: Are there any frustrations for you, either as an artist or a teacher of artists, about the way that opportunities are distributed in the UK? Specifically, what do you like about the North of England and the opportunities that it brings?

[LH]: The good thing about working as an artist in the North of England is that time goes slightly slower, because you’re not spending as much time worrying about money, and you’re not spending as much time trying to earn money. The enormous disadvantage is that there are no collectors north of Hampstead. And the museums that used to collect don’t have any money. The other massive disadvantage is that museums are very reliant on the commercial art world. You can’t do anything in the art world without that public/private partnership anymore. But alternatively, working in London is incredibly difficult if you actually want to make work that will stand the test of even your time.

[SF]: You’re obviously in great demand at the moment. What questions do you find yourself becoming tired of answering – is there anything you wish you were asked more about?

[LH]: What this attention has done is set me up for having less public conversations with my own circle of friends, artists and curators about what I hadn’t yet thought of, that are often stimulated by these interviews. So that is quite useful. But I don’t read any of these things in the papers. All the answers that I give are real answers, but sometimes the conversations are not quite useful in and of themselves.

[SF]: Do you think it’s a reasonable platform for other people to encounter your work in, though an interview or published feature?

[LH]: There’s nothing like being in a room with it. Because that’s the point. I can say all sorts about this or that painting. But your life is different to mine, and so you’re bringing all that baggage to that painting. You’re listening to it, and it is listening to you. If I am the authority on my work, there’s not much room for you. But I’m constantly trying to make room in these paintings for other people to be in them. That’s where the dialogue happens. So many of my paintings don’t work unless people are in the room with them, in them.

That’s why there are no pictures of bleeding or dying slaves lying about in the paintings, because no black people that I know would want to place themselves in that situation, and it simply fills a white European sensibility with a huge sense of guilt, and what am I supposed to do with that? I need you to get into that painting, and ask who you are in the painting, and what you are doing, and what will you do when you leave this gallery?

The Turner Prize exhibition continues at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull until 7 January 2018

Siobhán Forshaw is a writer based in London.

Published 06.11.2017 by Lauren Velvick in Interviews

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