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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Lubaina Himid, review: long-hidden stories brought stirringly into the light

Over the past five years, Lubaina Himid, who was born in Zanzibar in 1954 and won the Turner Prize in 2017, has enjoyed a great deal of eye-catching success. Before that, though? I don’t recall many awards, mid-career retrospectives, or profiles in the weekend papers.

Where were the curators and critics singing her praises in, say, 1995, when, as her new Tate exhibition reveals, she was producing big, bold paintings with simplified forms and scorching colours? This show, then, her largest to date, represents an important moment not only for her but also for Tate Modern, which, according to its director, Frances Morris, is committed to “opening up art history” and “exploding the canon”. 

Himid trained as a theatre designer, and she imagines her exhibition as a succession of “scenes”, rather than a conventional show of paintings. “Enter stage right”, entices a wall text at the start, beneath bright flags on pulleys, like flown backdrops, inspired by East African textiles. Inside, as well as many of her distinctive and enigmatic pictures, with their characteristically high-keyed palette, passages of dense pattern, and schematic forms depicting mournfully empty structures and pensive black figures, we find sculptural installations and ensembles of painted cut-outs like stage flats, supported by scraps of furniture. 

At several points, Himid collaborates with the Polish-born sound artist Magda Stawarska-Beavan. In one memorable piece, for instance, a row of wooden planks propped against a wall evokes, simultaneously, the swell of the ocean and the timber ribs of a slave ship’s hull, while a watery, creaking soundtrack enhances the effect. At the base of each oar-like beam, Himid paints clusters of white cowrie shells that could also be flecks of spume, or plump teardrops. 

Like much of her recent work, Old Boat/New Money (2019) addresses the transatlantic slave trade in a dignified manner which can be extremely moving, and may feel surprisingly gentle given that Himid calls herself a “cultural activist”. (She says she wants to tell this bitter story “without depicting bleeding, dying Africans”.) Despite her faux-naïf style, is it all a touch too tasteful? Perhaps.

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