Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid unveils Our Kisses Are Petals at Gateshead’s BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. This immersive installation invites the audience to interact with billowing flags, adorned with striking visuals and evocative poetry, hanging out like washing in rows across the Ground Floor gallery.
The flags are decorated with vibrant paintings of human anatomy: from a heart, to an optic nerve or a tongue they are each depicted in a somewhat elementary manner. The primary colour blocking of the flags embodies the symbolic and conspicuously patterned Kanga fabrics, traditionally worn by East African women, from which the visual aesthetic of Himid’s artworks are borne. Quotations from African American poets such as Audre Lorde and James Baldwin are emblazoned across the flags. The excerpts, which include ‘Much silence has a mighty noise’ and ‘How do you spell change?’, are ambiguous enough to permit the audience to rearrange the flags via pulleys to construct their own poem.
The involvement of the onlooker is paramount to Himid, who wants the audience to feel the most important part of the room, to have, as she says, an ‘immediate relationship’ with the artwork as they change the flags. The human organs on the flags also attune the audience’s propinquity with the artwork, being at once within and without of the painting. Himid’s preponderant ambition to relate audience to artwork arouses sentiments of belonging through collaboration.
Rendering the poetry and paintings on flags, in place of other materials such as boards or canvases, further heightens this notion of belonging. From the evocation of patriotic inclusion, to suggestions of domesticity and employment through washing lines and textiles, or even the more sombre allusion to slave ships, the flag is used here as a ubiquitous emblem of humanity. In the context of the Great Exhibition of the North, Himid’s astute usage of local flag makers serves to further cast this net of inclusion.
It would be impossible to not acknowledge Himid’s increased scope in the art world consequent to her winning the Turner Prize last year. As the artist explains, her victory has been the principal stimulus in getting people to listen, as well as initiating a sharp rise in collaborative work with other black female artists or those residing in her native North West England. The Turner Prize has facilitated her foray into more ‘daring’ and ‘scary’ experiments: allowing her to realise what she could once only envision.
But despite her newfound art world eminence, Our Kisses Are Petals presents a fresh embodiment of her consistently ingrained themes. From the reclamation of cultural identity and the contesting of institutionalised invisibility in the African diaspora, to her recurrent physical manifestation of belonging through audience involvement, they corroborate her belief in love as a panacea for all.
Our Kisses are Petals, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 11 May 2018 – 28 October 2018.
Rosie Minney is a Fine Art student based in Newcastle upon Tyne.