Lubaina Himid is an artist who invites us to question the structures that surround us. In her latest exhibition at the Tate, she theatrically slices through passive spectatorship, instead affording her audiences the agency to shape, activate and dialogue with her work. Himid’s polyphonic paintings, sculptures and assemblages catalyse acts of negotiation; unveiling and disentangling the ways of being we have absorbed as the norm. Intertwining the personal and the political, she probes: we live in clothes, we live in buildings – do they fit us? Has anyone ever asked us?
Rippling flags hang from the ceiling in front of the show’s entrance, at once invoking poetry and protest. We are compelled to direct our gaze upwards as we move around beneath these deceptively delicate fabrics, beholding the warmth and vivacity of imperfect geometric patterns and colourful, hand-painted questions. The flags’ gentle transparency engenders senses of interconnectedness and reinvention, since new colours and forms emerge as we observe one flag through the veil of another. Why are you looking? How do you spell change? Attention is drawn to the interstitial spaces we are welcomed to inhabit, to how we might react and interact.
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But how might we reimagine the world nevertheless? Himid’s Metal Handkerchief, a series of acrylic on metal paintings, fuses the lexis of British health and safety manuals with the patterns of East African Kanga to reframe the realms of work and life. The pieces are as whimsical and witty as they are serious. A saffron saw instructs us to ‘allow for short breaks’, whilst a magenta pulley urges that we ‘work from underneath’. Recontextualised in this way, the directions for use become directions for life – imagined manuals for ourselves, not just our tools.
There are empty chairs, the sea, maps, flags, characters gazing vacantly out of the frame, warm hues, eyelines that rarely meet. Even over the course of decades, Himid’s body of work is tightly motivic. The scenes depicted are generously capacious, drawing us in, keen to know how we will respond. Precarity recurs: buttons stood on end and about to topple, dream-like inconsistencies, unspoken hardships, structures that defy logic. How do you distinguish safety from danger? The moments Himid captures are imbued with liminality and anticipation – a sensation of it all hanging in the balance.
In A Fashionable Marriage, Himid beckons us behind the scenes, revealing her materials and craftsmanship, rendering us privy to the process. When art exposes artifice in this way, making plain the constructed nature of our surroundings and societies, we are reminded of the possibility of disentangling the world around us, of repairing and creating it anew. Himid’s three-dimensional pastiche of Picasso and Hogarth satirically riffs on the greed and hedonism of the 1980s, yet somehow feels unsettlingly immediate too. The white dress is all part of a plot to escape. Intermingling the spheres of art and politics, Himid sets the stage for an uncanny cast of characters: a bride on the run, Thatcher, a castrato critic, Reagan, a flautist-turned-art dealer, the National Front, a little girl, energetic Black women artists. The result of this reworking of Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode is deconstruction, opening out questions of who is afforded time and space and who is forced to the peripheries. The ferocity behind this sculptural caricature is palpable, equating to a scathing condemnation of both artistic and political oppression.
“When art exposes artifice in this way, making plain the constructed nature of our surroundings and societies, we are reminded of the possibility of disentangling the world around us, of repairing and creating it anew.”
Just as a bridal gown is angularly constructed from piled-up white drawers in A Fashionable Marriage, Himid’s Man in a Shirt Drawer also reimagines this commonplace container, elevating the everyday and asking us to pause and remark upon a space we might once have considered unremarkable. A painted drawer is attached to the gallery wall at eye-level on its side, protruding outwards at a right angle, meaning we have to walk around the object to discover the image tucked within. The contents do not disappoint: an elegant, androgynous face, adorned with pale, orchid pink lipstick and a fine strip of lemon-yellow eyeshadow. In contrast to the subject’s slick, contemporary appearance, the brown drawer has an antique, worn feel, intensifying the eccentricity of Himid’s choice of frame. A musing on the space between superficiality and depth emerges, interrogating how assumptions may override compassionate understanding; exploring how objects and furniture may become vessels of history, identity and memory. Reflecting on this piece, Himid disclosed: “I love that thought of opening a drawer and knowing that somebody else’s life is coming out of it. Lots of the furniture that we all have is not new from Ikea. If we’re living in rented accommodation it might easily be old from Ikea. Someone else has quite often used those drawers. So it’s about the lives that have gone before. You put your paper or your socks and knickers into somewhere that someone else had kept their diaries and phonebooks. An everyday encounter.”
So: what happens next? As in The Operating Table, the worlds conjured by Himid are neither purely utopic nor dystopic; they ruminate on strategy and reinvention, intended to galvanise us, rather than provide comfort. Her paintings and sculptures blend familiar scenes with otherworldly imagination, operating in liminal moments, often incorporating sparse outlines to suggest characters on the verge of appearing or fading away. Revisiting and reworking the paintings of European masters, she foregrounds the lacuna pervading British history books, replacing them with spaces for us to enter into and sneak behind the unsettlingly mesmeric scenes she depicts. In the midst of conflicts, borders and societies in need of repair, Himid enables us to envisage alternate possibilities, offering glimpses into a world constructed otherwise.
Cover Image: Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: The Exchange, 2016.