Beyond the Wilderness Years:
Lubaina Himid and the Turner Prize 2017

'Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, 2007' by Lubaina Himid. The Turner Prize Exhibition. Ferens Art Gallery. Hull. Photograph by David Levene 23/9/17

Much has been made of the fact that Lubaina Himid, at 63, is the oldest ever winner of the Turner Prize. The elimination of the age limit gave the prize a contextual shift: this time it feels not so much a springboard for a burgeoning artist, but a retrospective of Himid’s dynamic, politically-charged practice, which has been refined over decades.

And this, according to some, is exactly the problem. The award seeks to provide a platform for ground breaking new work, so why honour an artist who has already enjoyed a long and prolific career?

However, this argument fails to acknowledge the relevance of the themes Himid sets out to address: indeed, perhaps there has never been a better time for a spotlight to be shone on her work. Amid political corruption and the labyrinthine, misleading media coverage that forces its own narrative onto society, she sets out to redress the balance, to confront institutional bias and to expose how the most powerful can often silence voices to serve their own agenda. She is particularly concerned with how this relates to black history: the gaps, the omissions, the damaging misrepresentations.

Himid, who was born in Zanzibar and grew up in London, is also a contemporary art lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. This sense of responsibility to educate clearly informs her work, and she often combs through history to identify her subject matter, whether this means discovering unsung heroes or taking celebrated, canonical works of art as a starting point to reflect on society.

‘A Fashionable Marriage’ (1986), which forms the striking centrepiece of the exhibition, is one such example. Taking its cues from Hogarth’s ‘Marriage a la Mode’ (1743-45), the work is a sprawling tableau of large wooden cut-out figures exposing the greed and decadence of 1980s society, complete with flirting caricatures of Thatcher and Reagan. Given the farcical nature of politics, it makes perfect sense to represent it as a pantomime, grotesque villains and all. When she made the piece, Himid could never have guessed that it would still feel so immediate 31 years later, but this unforeseen mirroring of the present day just serves to reinforce how little progress has been made. It is only the two black figures who stand apart from the hedonism and excess, quietly observing the scene.

Though boisterous satire is a hallmark of Hamid’s practice, other works on display take a more sober approach. The painting ‘Le Rodeur: Exchange’ (2016) recounts an incident on a slave ship bound for Guadaloupe in which everyone on board contracted a disease, causing them to go blind. In Himid’s composition, the figures wear modern dress and there are no obvious markers of the context, but the anxiety is palpable, their faces stunned. The lack of agency about their future in a new country is embodied by their loss of vision.

Himid also uses annotation techniques to draw out latent prejudices and preconceptions. This is especially evident in works such as ‘Negative Positives’ (2007-2017) in which covers of the Guardian are modified to highlight examples of racial stereotyping, and ‘Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service’ (2007), a collection of second hand crockery repurposed as paintings depicting Lancaster’s colonial past. Images of wealthy aristocrats gorging themselves and vomiting are painted directly over floral patterns and fussy bucolic scenes. It’s a tacit reminder that English identity isn’t simply about pastoral landscapes and china teacups, it’s a story of exploitation and the ugly legacy of the slave trade.

This is a recurring feature of Himid’s work and one which makes her voice as an artist so compelling: she interrogates the accepted story and makes the viewer question their own assumptions. Why are these narratives so passively accepted? Whose voices are being elevated, and at whose expense?

‘A Fashionable Marriage, 1987’ by Lubaina Himid. The Turner Prize Exhibition. Ferens Art Gallery. Hull. Photograph by David Levene.

The announcement of the Turner Prize 2017 also marks the close of a landmark year for Hull, of course. It’s been a year in which, upon arriving into the train station, you would find yourself armed with flyers for more exhibitions and events than you could even hope to visit. Hosting the Turner Prize 2017 has played a pivotal part in that, with the exhibition attracting more than 45,000 visitors in its first month alone. It seems fitting, therefore, to close with the celebration of an artist whose work is finally achieving the recognition it deserves.

Upon accepting the award, Himid thanked those who had supported her during her ‘wilderness years’. Despite her career being extensive, there can be no question that she has spent much of it fighting to make herself heard. Yet those years are surely now behind her. It may have taken a long time to get to this point, but people are finally ready to take part in the conversation.

Turner Prize 2017, Ferens Art Gallery, 6 September 2017 – 7 January 2018.

Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.

Published 11.12.2017 by Elspeth Mitchell in Features

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