In many ways, Lubaina Himid’s art has helped me synthesize my thoughts and observations on London after my extended visit there this month. She’s been creating art for over 35 years and was recently awarded the Turner Prize by the Tate in 2017. As both the oldest recipient and the first black woman to receive the prize, her award is certainly groundbreaking, but as an artist, educator, critic, and curator that centers blackness in her work, Himid’s long career cements her standing as a pioneer of the British black arts movement.
While I was in London I was captivated by the satirical tales depicted in Hogarth’s work at the National Gallery. Marriage a la Mode is a moral saga and searing critique of neoclassical tradition that makes me want to pursue an art history degree (almost). One of Himid’s most noted works from the 1980s is a piece that’s derivative Marriage a la Mode called A Fashionable Marriage.
It is a critique of London’s art scene during that decade, and its criticism extends to the larger body politic of Great Britain and their place within the global, political and cultural zeitgeist. The piece is timeless as its artistic rendering of 1980s leaders resonates as a relevant rebuke of our current leadership today.
Himid’s Negative Positives: Guardian Series challenges Britain’s fascination with media, specifically the papers as she critiques the subtle bias that’s embedded within traditionally liberal print publications. In these works that span over a decade during the mid-2000’s, Himid takes pages from the Guardian and redacts text through painting and drawings that highlight editorial decisions that subtly reinforce negative narratives, caricature, and stereotypes. By calling out the implied narratives that are passively perpetuated, she questions the editors, writers, and consumers on their awareness of privilege and bias.
Two major themes in Himid’s work are belonging and contribution, and in her 2004 work called Naming the Money, the artist encourages a dialog among black characters routinely featured in servitude within canonized western works of art. In this piece, Lubaina Himid gathers characters who are frequently depicted as servants at the behest of the aristocratic subjects of classical paintings and she brings them all together. The process is similar to how the poet Robin Coste Lewis envisioned her writing process while working on the Voyage of Sable Venus. As the poet laureate described in the New Yorker,
“If we went back, if we went all over the world and looked at every object, every statue, every painting that included a black female figure in any way, and wrote every title down, what would art’s epic sing then?…What began as a small experiment expanded into the history of art in the entire Western world. The museums were invisible graveyards. They were just sitting there: broken, defaced, unseen. A catalogue of bodies.”
Within their respective practices, both Himid and Lewis are bringing the untold stories of those hidden in the shadows to the forefront, challenging societal and institutional invisibility by filling in the gaps in art history. Lubaina Himid speaks directly to black audiences who long to see complete narratives of our experiences represented in the art that’s hung on gallery walls.