British artist Lubaina Himid was awarded the Turner Prize in 2017 and since then has been a quietly powerful presence in the art world.
In 2019, she exhibited at the New Museum in New York and then at Wiels in Brussels in 2020. Now, in a homecoming moment, she has opened an eponymous survey of her work at Tate Modern. Featuring paintings, sculptures, installations, and sound works, the show lifts the lid on Himid’s practice beyond the most recent paintings for which she’s best known, revealing the journey that brought her to this point.
“I suppose the last few years have been full of those sorts of things—not big risks, but those sorts of risks where it could go wrong, but where I discovered all sorts of things about myself,” Himid mused as we spoke at Tate Modern.
The pandemic was an opportunity to slow down, she said. But it was also a chance to focus on painting and thinking about art after a whirlwind year that saw her on the front line of debates about media representation, culminating in an unorthodox residency with the newspaper after she accused its staff of enforcing racial biases.
“It gave me a chance to make a particular kind of painting and to do this collaboration that I did with Magda,” she said, referring to sound and film artist Magda Stawarska-Beavan.
The resulting collaborative show at Wiels last year (“Lubaina Himid: Risquons-Toutwith”), which explored the color blue, its senses and its meanings, was inspired by the Joni Mitchell album . Some of the show is also part of the Tate Modern exhibition, the sound design of which took place ahead of the curation of the rest of the work, providing a framework for the visual works in the show. The sound flows and bleeds from room to room, much like the sea, which is a theme throughout the show.
“What Magda and the sound the team did was sort of compose the whole space at once,” Himid said. “I think what it allows is audiences to go at a particular pace. You’re pulled [through], but you still have the memory in your body. You certainly have it because you can still just hear what’s behind you, but there is something else pulling you through.”
In a sound work titled Blue Grid Test (2020), the soothing recital of “blue, blau, bleu,” with poetic evocations of the color blue, wrap the viewer in calm. But then you step out into open water, into the sound of the unrelenting movement of the ocean filling the next, huge room.
“When you leave , that was the innocence for lost, safe space. But we gave you that and then you’re out in the open, where everything is dangerous. Then when you reach [a] big square, and you’ve got old boats, new money. A boat, a wave, the shore—the history of the capturing of Africans and the shipping of Africans.”
The show explodes in a later room with huge, beautiful paintings of figures in discussion. But somehow, their interior worlds speak more loudly than their gestures. There is tension in each painting, as though we have just missed something, or as if something pivotal will happen the moment we walk by.
Two series dominate the selection. First is the “Pastry Chefs,” which deals with the inner dialogue and outer behavior of men, and the power dynamics they negotiate.
“If you imagine, all day long, these men are in a fast and beautiful kitchen making fabulous creations of spun sugar and chocolate,” she said. “It’s not necessary, but it’s kind of fabulous.”
The second series is the “Le Rodeur,” in which Himid imagines life on a fabled ship that came from West Africa to the Caribbean on which nearly everyone went blind. Upon arriving at their destination, an indigenous Caribbean tribe cured their sight. But who were the lucky ones, Himid asks? The ones who arrived to enslavement, or the one who were thrown into the sea on the way?
“They don’t know what’s happening,” Himid said of the newly arrived enslaved men and women. “They don’t know where they are. They don’t know what the sea is. They don’t know what boats are. They don’t know whether they’re going to hell. They knew nothing—and on top of that, they’re going blind. And top of that, some of them, in their blindness, are being thrown overboard.”
Himid intends these works and the entire show to raise more questions than it answers. She sees the non-chronological order as a risk worth taking. The works ask monumental questions of the viewer, but their vivid beauty—they are great paintings—hold you in a safe place as you contemplate them.
Throughout the show are sails, pulleys, ropes, and waters, a constant theme of balance and navigation, the ever-moving waters and shifting sands of an identity thrown into chaos by a cataclysmic event.
The show ends on a stark note, with a sound work in which the names of slaves are spoken aloud, accompanied by music with a connection to Blackness from Baroque to jazz. Nearby are a haunting sculpture, an empty bike, and smoking shelter graffitied with the phrase, “Do you want an easy life?” It’s a cliffhanger of an ending to what is essentially a show filled with emotion.
“You have a shot at Tate Modern and then the temptation is to absolutely play it safe and play the same formula, because we know what works,” Himid said. “You know, start chronologically, go through the career, and end up with your recent work. But that’s not quite the way I think, or the way I work. It’s all, for me, about pushing things a little bit within the confines of a museum or an art gallery or within visual arts.”