Lubaina Himid: “The beginning of my life was a terrible tragedy” | Lubaina Himid

THEubaina Himid has waited a long time for a show at Tate Modern. She is now 67 years old and in 2017 she had the bittersweet honor of being the first black woman and oldest artist (63) to win the Turner Prize. Bittersweet because “I most certainly knew, the same way you don’t necessarily know if you’re 45, that I had more years behind me than ahead. You might think, if you won it at 45, that you might have the same time again to try things, to fail, to try again. To live fast and loose, and have big parties. And I guess at 63, I thought, “Well, at best, I’m probably 20 years old in the making.”

We’re in Preston, the town where she’s lived since she was 36. She holds a chair at the University of Central Lancashire, and her studio, where we speak, is in a Victorian building above the Citizens Advice Bureau, right in the city center, overlooking the covered market and a stone’s throw from the majestic Harris Greek Museum. Everything is clean and white in its eagle’s nest, except for a few unfinished canvases that glow in blues, oranges and greens. On a table are dozens of tubes of acrylic paint, arranged in neat rows. Much of the floor space is taken up by an old handcart that she will use at some point to do a work; there are old wooden drawers, the insides of which she painted with men’s heads.

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Wasn’t the victory a huge boost, I ask? “Of course that is what happened,” she said. “I was like, ‘Do I have time to be this brave and exciting? And then I realized I had to do it. And it was fabulous. The real turning point, she says, was captured by a London gallery, Hollybush Gardens, in 2013. Until then, she had been working steadily and successfully, exhibiting regionally, but without recognition by major metropolitan institutions. Everything has changed now, and since that victory his international reputation has also grown, with exhibitions at Wiels in Brussels and at the New Museum in New York. For the big one, at Tate Modern, she’s eagerly trying to “break the rules,” she says – it’s no easy task. Right now, she is faced with the paradox that once a work leaves her studio and enters the museum, it ceases to be provisional – something that she manipulates, modifies, repaints – and becomes a precious artefact. “You mean, ‘It’s just art, it’s okay.’ But they treat him with incredible respect. And then maybe the public will be reckless with that. But I believe in the public a lot. I try to do this show so that the viewer thinks they are the most important person in the room.

Jelly Mold Pavilion for the Folkestone Triennial. Photograph: Colin Walton / Alamy

The entire exhibition is conceived as a stage set, in which you, the visitor, are the protagonist – complementing the works with your presence, just as a play exists in its truest form when it is animated by actors in front of an audience. There will be a sound element in the show, composed by her close friend and collaborator, Magda Stawarska-Beavan, bringing out the sound she feels implicit in her work – “It’s just that these are paintings”, says- her reasonably, “so you can’t hear it. She points to a canvas she’s working on, a large scene of two women on the deck of a ship.” The sea makes noise, doesn’t it? The birds make noise, the boat creaks… ”

Himid’s work deliberately invites you to do so. There is always an invitation for you to get on the deck of the boat, to join in the fun; or, if it is a work such as The Operating Table, in which three seated women seem to be debating how to design a city, you will find that Himid has left room for you to join them at their table. The works show dramatic moments, but not in a grandiloquent sense: no Chekhovian pistol is introduced into his paintings which must, of necessity, explode. Rather, she shows us the little gestural dramas of everyday life, encounters like the ones she sees playing out in front of her studio window. (“Scenes from Dickens or Hogarth, if you’re in Preston: all life is here.”) Her paintings feature “private moments in public places,” she says. The small decisions and the minor negotiations on which entire lives could be hung.

Conversation is often the key: Outside of her groups of capable women, she often paints male dandies, each “trying not to be the most dominant man in the room.” She points out that in art history, men are often depicted either owning or dominating something: her work is, she says, “much more interested in the way people are; people, that is to say, who do not often get painted. The men who have market stalls, or the men who play dominoes, or the man who has just cooked while the others are eating. There is drama in everyday life, in moments that seem insignificant. “

Much of this dramatic impetus comes from his early theatrical training. Himid’s British mother met her father, who is from Zanzibar, when they were students. They settled together on the Tanzanian archipelago, but her father, a teacher, died of malaria soon after Himid was born. “The start of my life,” as she bluntly puts it, “was a terrible tragedy”. Her mother – who herself died last year at the age of 92 – brought her four-month-old baby to the UK and settled in London. She was a textile designer, who passed her eye for the pattern on to her daughter, and often took the teenager Himid to museums and department stores (both, in their own way, from 19th-century temples to material culture). ).

Door sculptures for Frieze 2020.
Door sculptures for Frieze 2020. Photograph: Waldemar Sikora / Alamy

Himid remembers seeing Bridget Riley’s 1968 painting Late Morning on one of those trips, in the Tate Gallery, hanging behind sculptures by Giacometti. (“I objected to them using the Bridget Riley, it seemed to me, as a backdrop for the Giacometti.”) Can manipulate you in such a way that you want to watch, and then you can’t watch – like, ‘Come here… then fuck you.’ These are the kinds of works that really taught me what painting can do.

Nonetheless, she was drawn to studying theater design rather than fine art – though it was rather a disappointment for her, with her teachers invested in the velvet and gilding world of ballet and opera instead. that in the more political and European theater that she was excited by. (She would love to work with a stage designer now, she says, to create sets for an opera or a play.) After college, she did a bit of this and that – waitress, working in restaurants. galleries and designing restaurants. It was in catering spaces that she began to set up exhibitions of her work and that of her peers. “I knew absolutely from a young age that Africans, blacks, made art, but all around me they were telling me we didn’t do it,” she says.

Eventually, in the 1980s, she completed an MA in Cultural History at the Royal College of Art and researched other black and Asian artists. “And of course they were working all over the country: Eddie Chambers, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Sonia Boyce, Veronica Ryan, Sutapa Biswas… several of us brought these people together in different ways and started putting on shows.”

These artists of color and others, like Himid herself, have recently found themselves in the limelight, with prominent exhibitions and projects; Sonia Boyce, for example, will represent the UK at the Venice Biennale next year; Last winter, Berman illuminated the facade of Tate Britain with a light installation. “They have always been quality artists,” says Himid. “I think some people might say, ‘Oh, we’re showing them now because now they’re really good. Yes, but even I who didn’t have a degree from Courtauld could tell they were really good 30 years ago.

Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, 2007.
Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, 2007. Photograph: David Levene / The Guardian

Himid worries that this current prominence is a fashionable moment, rather than solid progress, but she also thinks “it’s very good that a lot of these artists who were in their twenties in the 1980s are being seen by younger people. [Black and Asian] artists to be still doing it. I think, however, that young artists also think, “Yeah, whatever. I can do something more interesting, better, more experimental, more dynamic. ‘ I hope that now there is no stopping this momentum.

Himid wants his exhibition to be a meeting place, a place where action can begin. This is what attracted her to the theater in the first place: “It seemed like it was a place where you can make things happen, where things change, costumes change, sets change, places change, places change. emotions change. When his work is on display at Tate Modern, you will be able to see the backs of his life-size painted cutouts, appreciate the fact that his work is often made from humble objects, transformed from everyday pieces (boxes , old boxes, pieces of wood, old dressers). His work shows – and takes pleasure in – his own artifice. “What I want,” she said, “is for people to see that you can, for example, turn a jelly mold into a model for a pavilion, or you can put a chair on the back of a cutout for a pavilion. make her stand up. In fact, the ability to move something from this to that is possible. “

And that kind of change, she suggests, could replace – or be part of – an ability to create larger change. ” It is not easy ; it is not easy to make a table, it is in fact very difficult. But it is possible to change something about yourself or your environment or the world. I want people to think, “If she can do it, then it must be possible for me to do it too.” “

Lubaina Himid is at Tate Modern, London, in Thur until July 3, 2022.

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