Lubaina Himid’s earliest piece, The Fashionable Marriage (1987) is a powerful indication of her experience as artist, organiser and educator. Himid sought images of black people within historical painting from the start, using the painting as a visual source material, as evidence.
The Fashionable Marriage makes sophisticated reference to Hogarth’s depiction of his own time in his series of six pictures entitled Marriage a la Mode, 1743-45. Himid, who trained as a stage designer, appreciates Hogarth’s use of reproduction, graphic language and caricature. As an artist she uses layer upon layer of reference and material, working with a sense that information, expression, and understanding can be gleaned from visual sources as well as from within oneself.
Her training draws on collective association, the range of work she makes as curator, teacher and artist articulates the sense that communication comes from much more than direct experience. British art in the 1980s was particularly concerned with institutional context: the exhibition, ‘The Thin Black Line’, which she curated at the ICA in 1985 was all about history and context, what Himid calls a dance within the art world. In those days, she wanted as a black woman to be there between the feminists, funders, and critics, not only as a footnote.
The Fashionable Marriage stands away from both walls to show its construction behind, as well as the illusion in front. The characters, like those in a toy theatre pushed in from the side, play the role of props in a continuous relation to three dimensional domestic space. The stage is set with apparent abandon and Himid follows the principle of Modernism, with both front and back stage revealed.
The work is fantastically relevant, of course; satire and art can conflate time. The audience for this piece may have shifted in terms of the expectation of the representation of black people, but the hypocrisy is unchanged, a new US President flirts with a new British Prime Minister, again, within the same implied special relationship. At many levels everything, yet nothing, has changed.
Both the Negative Positives series and Swallow Hard: the Lancaster Dinner Service are elements brought in by the artist and worked upon with a sensitive intuition for the associative strength of pattern and design. Himid plays with what is revealed and what is not. Both sets, worked on at the same time, in 2007, are about the exposure of the familiar, posted as it were, through the letterbox of everyday life.
For Swallow Hard: the Lancaster Dinner Service, Himid hunted down dinner plates, jugs, and tureens, in junk shops, markets and charity shops. Perhaps someone had owned a plate like that, or their grandmother had had a jug. By painting directly onto the ceramic object she achieves an almost camouflaged shift of picture and lettering; a view of Lancaster, painted on Willow pattern for instance, a caricature of incident.
Jugs and tureens represent black servants at the time while other pieces, plates, for instance, represent the traders, abolitionists, and liberals. Those close to the slave trade respond to the announcement of its abolition; some aristocrats are glad, some vomit. Displayed as an official service commemorating the abolition of the slave trade, it highlights the role of Lancaster within it.
The Negative Positives series can be seen as a source of generous instruction from Himid who paints on the front pages of the Guardian to illustrate the way that black people are represented there.
The context is deliberately chosen, it is the UK’s national liberal paper. Patterns are drawn across, sometimes to contextualise the person pictured, sometimes to balance the page, or both. Himid wants to reiterate and repeat text in pictorial form. A newspaper, normally disposable, is dissected and enhanced. Instead of putting aside, not really seeing the context in which a black footballer is placed, the lesson from Himid is that the photographs are chosen for reasons, mainly unconscious, that reinforce implied criticism, perhaps, or show the footballer playing out a familiar gesture with something of the comic black face about it. The effect, an incredibly generous lesson, is to plant and reclaim understanding, to set up a different relation between text and design, inclusion and caricature.
Lubaina Himid’s recent paintings approach the subject of subject in a different way. She paints the surrounding atmosphere, intensity, afterglow as well as presentiment of an incident imagined but nonetheless real. Based on an account in a ledger where human and financial loss inevitably and literally adds up to the same thing. The Le Rodeur series is about the economics of a slave ship sailing from West Africa to Guadeloupe on which all inhabitants of the ship, except for one person were struck, perhaps by an infection, and became blind . Himid comes close, but not entirely, to the account. As an artist, with a powerful desire and active working life telling, and questioning how to tell the story of the slave trade, she imagines this situation with a mixture of diplomacy and license. Avoiding any literal representation of bleeding or dying Africans, she imagines and paints the moment, before, or after, this terrible thing has happened.
Himid admits to not knowing whether it is before or after, but the people in the painting seem to be feeling, not seeing, as they try to come to terms with their experience. Some know, some don’t, one even attempts to tell the story, and the sea, a constant reminder, still rages. The representation of the loss of sight, basic for an art audience, presides with almost classic stillness. This in turn plays upon a range of consciousness, which runs parallel with a gamut of political understanding. Loss of sight within an established situation is one thing but this particular incident, heaped upon the then permanent and unchallenged state of the slave trade, is a clear moment . A painting holds the power to say something more about and other than reality. Here using solitary staging and mannered movement, the painting is a metaphor for trauma and tragedy played out in eternity.
© Sacha Craddock 2017