Recently, I went on a trip to London – to the city that always feels like home to me and had the chance to feed my cultural appetite and curiosity with Lubaina Himid’s exhibition at Tate Modern. I was too excited that I booked the first entry slot of the day, woke up feeling very energised, put my headphones on, and walked across the Millennium Bridge under the beaming sun.
I stopped for the hundredth time to capture the beauty of the south facade of St Paul’s Cathedral and Tate banners from a distance, feeling like a cheery child back in her favourite city once again. One can tell how ready I was, and rightfully so, to meet with Himid’s visual storytelling practice.
“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.”(1)Adrienne Rich, 1972
Who is Lubaina Himid?
Lubaina Himid was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania in 1954 and moved to the UK as a child. She was a leading figure in the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s and her work tackles the themes of marginalised histories, gender, race, class, (re)claiming identity, and the African diaspora with an emphasis on how underrepresented or misrepresented black people were in the media outlets, arts, and the everyday life in Britain more generally.
Himid is the first black woman to win the Turner Prize in 2017 for her visual work addressing racial politics (2). In addition to her artist and curator profile, she also teaches contemporary art at the University of Central Lancashire – cultivating generations of interrogative minds nurtured by creativity, freedom, and desire to challenge the interlocking systems of power.
Art in our everyday lives
I was once told life marries the shape of one’s gaze. Articulating the gaze as a form of looking that is not docile but active is crucial because it is through the gaze that we are searching, manifesting, taking inspiration from, and learning how to make sense of the world we inhabit – socially, politically, and culturally.
Feminist scholar bell hooks coined the term “oppositional gaze” and claimed that there is power in looking – “That all attempt to repress our/black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.”(3).
As I believe that there is power embedded in art, photography, film, and digital too, Himid’s exhibition made me realise, once again, the power of images as a form of benevolent power.
Having seen the emergence of artists like Lubaina Himid who attempt to find new visual representations for the self – colonialism, migration, and feminism with their own diasporic and postcolonial art practices, I believe that art travelled across boundaries and found new assemblages under the roof of what I call “art for society’s sake” for us to realise and cherish the multiplicity of stories.
The world deviates from one moment of crisis into another. Hence, we have also seen the emergence of art activism to respond to the oppressions that dominate everyday life.
For instance, Chileans exiled during the Pinochet dictatorship used art from the Santiago favelas as their weapon in fighting for democracy and wanted to feel they were practising solidarity (4). It is in this regard that art transgresses borders and offers informative stories (both nationally and transnationally) while deepening our understanding of the experiences of hybrid identities through the artistic oeuvre of visual representation.
“We live in clothes, we live in buildings – do they fit us?” & “What does love sound like? & “What are monuments for? asks Lubaina Himid in an attempt to raise but also address these questions through her works. Then we see a more nuanced text titled Audiences as Performersthat sets the interactive narrative of the exhibition by articulating a set of rhetorical questions:
“What is my plan
What will I learn about myself here
What would I do in this situation
How is my life the same as this one
What does this setting offer me today…”Lubaina Himid, 2021
From the very beginning, Himid invites us to consider how monuments, history/historical injustices, conflict, and the quest to belong co-constitute our lives and the ways in which we navigate specific events.
The exhibition is rich in the sense that it touches upon the multiple layers of colonial trauma, diasporic material cultures, and lived experiences while using a variety of multimedia productions. You can see textiles, sound installations with Himid’s voice, paintings, vivid colours, perilous journeys, ceramics as everyday objects, and cut-out figures – all uncovering untold and dusted histories through contemporary re-iterations of what it meant to be “marginalised” and how to “reclaim” the previously mentioned gaze.
Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool (2010) is located in the first room upon entering the exhibition and commemorates the past and ever-continuing contributions of the African diaspora in Liverpool by featuring 30 hand-painted Victorian ceramic jelly moulds. Considering Liverpool’s troubled history of being the largest slave-trading port in Britain, Lubaina Himid’s careful naming of Jelly Moulds links the transatlantic slave trade and sugar consumption with the city of Liverpool.
She describes her inspiration as: “I chose jelly moulds because the insides are beautiful and yet invisible. Although these jelly mould monuments will never be built, their purpose is to encourage the visitor to ask questions about the city’s history, how we can celebrate and commemorate the Black community.”
I, therefore, perceived it as an endeavour to elaborate on this gruelling imperial past and then position African people at the heart of the story as key figures of past, present, and future. It can also be analysed as a resistance and solidarity toolkit driven by an urgency to fight against historical amnesia through featuring traditional motifs and influential black people in the civil rights movement.
Although precarity is a recurring theme in Lubaina Himid’s art, black identities and women’s togetherness have always been celebrated. Between the Two My Heart is Balanced (1991) portrays two black women sailing in a precarious boat in their vivid clothes, with one woman’s dress resembling a cage-like pattern.
The painting is Himid’s appropriation of James Tissot’s painting Portsmouth Dockyard (1877) which portrays two well-dressed women travelling with a Highland soldier and perhaps accounts for two potential lovers of that man.
Lubaina Himid, therefore, removes the soldier that embodies imperial domination and her title suggests multiple belongings, struggles for identity, and a life of in-betweenness navigated by migrants and refugees travelling across borders and seas. It is a negotiation, perhaps, between what Paul Gilroy defines as “routes” and “roots.” (5)
Himid’s women embrace their lives piled between two cultures with an agentic voice informed both by their “routes” and “roots.” The objects assembled between the women in Lubaina Himid’s painting are believed to be representing maps and books written by European colonizers about Africa.
The women are, therefore, removing those maps, throwing them to the sea, and re-writing their own histories. Even though there is a fearful sense of an open future – an intergenerational trauma of the unknown, there is also a celebration of the resistance, survival, and sisterhood that keeps the journey more bearable, if not easier.
Contrary to the Guardian’s review of Lubaina Himid’s exhibition as a “promise unfulfilled” (6), I enjoyed the endeavour to dig deep into the matter of the relationship between myself and the daily encounters we are taking for granted. COVID-19 Pandemic told us how inequalities are multi-dimensional.
We questioned who disseminates information, who gets the voice to talk about inequalities, who/what restricts our mobility and how media represents those inequalities (gendered inequalities, discrimination migrant communities face, class/race dynamics, deepened economic inequalities, and digital divide) enacted by the pandemic.
In this regard, this solo exhibition with its vibrant political and poetical narration of what “margin” and “centre” really means, opened up an intriguing window to see how activism, memory, and mutual dialogue can also be practised in audio/visual forms.
(1) Adrienne Rich (1972) ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision’, National Council of Teachers of English, pp.18-30.
(3) bell hooks (1992) Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, South End Press, p.116.
(4) Jacqueline Adams (2012) ‘Exiles, Art and Political Activism: Fighting the Pinochet Regime from Afar’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 26 (3), pp.436-457.
(5) Paul Gilroy (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London, Verso.