Lubaina Himid at Tate Modern – a Hogarth for today
The first piece in Lubaina Himid’s joyous exhibition at Tate Modern is an absurd beach scene. In 1984 Himid reimagined Picasso’s classic “Two Women Running” as a pair of black lesbian lovers, hands entwined, rushing through a pink curtain. Their dresses are real fabric, boldly patterned, and a real leash holds four geometric wooden dogs with bared rectangular jaws and triangular teeth, gnawing at the bit; they add momentum and madness. Behind the women, silhouettes of bald, white heads are buried up to their necks in the sand – men are not going anywhere. The installation is called “Freedom and Change”.
For four decades, Himid carved out large, often life-size figures, both freestanding and painted on canvas, and arranged them in paintings that reinvent the history or history of art from a black point of view. . Born in Zanzibar (now Tanzania) in 1954 to a black father and a white mother, she has lived in the United Kingdom since the age of four months. Although her sources are diverse, she works extensively with British artists, descendant of Hogarth – narrative, comedic, lavish in detail, brimming with social criticism – and Victorian cartoonist George Cruikshank with clean Pop Art lines and flat, lucid compositions. by David Hockney, combined with training in theatrical creation. She received the Turner Prize in 2017 – the first black woman to win.
Tate’s launch of its exhibition which will run concurrently with its Hogarth exhibition (at Tate Britain) is inspired; the juxtaposition emphasizes the still relatively unknown Himid as a dominant voice – a Hogarth for today, a modern moral chronicler.
She rose to prominence in 1986 with “A Fashionable Marriage”, an assembly of 11 painted wooden figures embellished with textiles, newspaper, aluminum foil, derived from “The Toilette” by Hogarth in “Marriage a -the fashion “. In Himid’s version, the dissolute Countess of Hogarth is Margaret Thatcher, her illicit lover Ronald Reagan – lounging on a star and striped couch, missiles bursting from her crotch. A subplot is a staging of wacky and whimsical art lovers (“The Collector”, “The Donor”) and scribbled Picasso – the arrogant, exclusive, white art establishment of the 1980s.
There is hope, however. The two black servants of Hogarth’s painting have crossed the genre: one dominates, like a queen, over everyone, the other – based on Himid’s girlfriend, the poet Maud Sulter – is perched vigilant, intelligent , self-master, on a trunk with a stack of books. A pivotal figure, she symbolizes education as a tool to “enable black women to escape oppression”.
“It wasn’t made as a great work of art,” says Himid, “it was a furious caricature of the times.” The work now seems nostalgic; it reminds me of the student agitprop from the 1970s-1980s – home-made, warmly chaotic, in your face: a period piece. Yet it is to memorize the time: in 1986, Himid remembers, “he was greeted with horror because you [didn’t] see the work that was so critical. . . of white society. Following the negative reactions, Himid left London to live in the north of England.
“Marriage” contains the seed of everything since: the pop-up aesthetic, the narrative impulse, the tightrope between playfulness and rage. Twenty years later, it’s “Naming the Money”: 100 life-size painted wooden characters, extravagantly dressed as musicians, dancers, artisans. Each represents a black servant, a status symbol in wealthy 17th- and 18th-century European households, and is inscribed on the back with a potted biography imagining their individuality, identity – their name, in a repeated phrase: “My name is Olusade They call me Jenny I used to treat illnesses Now I make tea.
This exuberant spectacle is Himid’s masterpiece and at the heart of his art. Expressing the joy of doing, of imagining – the survivor’s story – rather than describing the atrocity is largely his response to the historical trauma. So there is no escape from the disappointment that Tate does not show “Naming”. In its place is a related sound piece: recitations of the names and occupations of servants interspersed with world music – John Coltrane, Baroque viola da gamba harmonies, Buena Vista Social Club.
It’s poignant – an evocation of ghosts, stolen identities, disappeared. He plays, incongruously, from loudspeakers in a gallery containing only an empty bicycle shed. It also overflows throughout the show and overlaps, like waves, the roar of the tumultuous sea – the soundtrack of an installation of giant painted oars leaning against a wall, “Old Boat / New Money”.
Together – and this is where you see and hear the most dazzling Himid the Set Designer – the sounds float above the central gallery showcasing the series of paintings “Le Rodeur” (2016-17). The title refers to an illegal French slave ship whose entire human cargo, as well as most of the crew, went blind on a voyage in 1819; three dozen slaves were thrown overboard.
How to paint fear? In crisp, flat paintings like stage sets, Himid depicts a contemporary transatlantic cruise where perplexed, then terrified guests – trendy young black travelers in razor-shining suits and dresses – bow, sway, hang on, as their eyesight breaks down. One woman has a bird’s head with a pearl yellow eye, another has an eye emblem on her designer coat. A large unstable waiter offers a tower of jelly as wobbly as him. Outside, the gray sea is bubbling. Inside, a large diagram of a lock dominates.
I had thought of Himid as an average painter until I met “Le Rodeur”. This inventive series goes beyond her other two-dimensional works: she distils her flair for the theater on canvas; he claims the normal lifestyle of everyday rich blacks, but historical horror resonates. And it has never been so powerful as it is here, with the music reiterating the plight of those on board – slavery or death on the rough seas. Himid hopes that “the music says ‘be part of this installation’, not ‘watch it’.”
It takes a little patience with this exhibition. Himid is uneven and the opening galleries set an unhappy tone of fancy love feast: an enveloping text “Our kisses are petals, our tongues caress the bloom”; “metal handkerchiefs” paintings representing tools – screwdrivers, pulleys, saws – underlined by double meaning quotes from instruction manuals to “ensure adequate space”, “provide adequate protection”, “keep moving parts lubricated”. Embroidered flags with body patterns and twee inscriptions – one eye (“Why are you looking”); a heart (“So Many Dreams”) – are childish. The portraits of black men painted / incarcerated in drawers are sentimental, obvious.
But then there are the wagons: the “Feast Wagons” lined with tapestries of things we instinctively hate – spiders, scorpions – as analogies to how we demonize each other, especially refugees fleeing to our neighborhoods with, metaphorically, their meager possessions crammed into such carts. Didactic, yes, and touching. They remind us that Himid is not only the heir of Hogarth but of Brecht. She is a caring, courageous mother, who follows troubles and catastrophes with her art-cart – an irrepressible witness of our time.
November 25-July 3, tate.org.uk