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Lubaina Himid MBE

Born, 1954 in Zanzibar, Tanzania

image of Lubaina Himid MBE

Lubaina Himid is one of the most important and accomplished women artists to be identified with the 1980s emergence and development of Black artists in Britain. Alongside her studio practice as a painter and creator of mixed media pieces, she established a reputation as a curator of Black artists’ exhibitions, both gender and non-gender specific.

Himid was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania in 1954, coming to England shortly after her birth. A degree in Theatre Design was awarded to her in 1976 after a period of study at Wimbledon School of Art. In 1979 Himid began to organise exhibitions. She started by establishing a gallery in a central London restaurant, though it was not until 1983 that Himid organised the first of several widely respected exhibitions of work by Black women artists. The first such exhibition was Five Black Women at the Africa Centre. Other exhibitions followed, including Black Women Time Now at Battersea Arts Centre and The Thin Black Line at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. These exhibitions took place in 1983 and 1985 respectively. Himid’s preface to The Thin Black Line exhibition catalogue summarised the curatorial position she adopted for these exhibitions. “All eleven artists in this exhibition are concerned with the politics and realities of being Black Women. We will debate upon how and why we differ in our creative expression of these realities. Our methods vary individually from satire to storytelling, from timely vengeance to careful analysis, from calls to arms to the smashing of stereotypes. We are claiming what is ours and making ourselves visible. We are eleven of the hundreds of creative Black Women in Britain. We are here to stay”.

Himid has been involved in numerous other initiatives and projects involving Black artists. In 1984 she was one of two curators responsible for an exhibition widely regarded as the first major exposure of the new generation of Black British artists. The exhibition in question was Into the Open held at the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield. Her work was included in the From Two Worlds exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery, 30 July - 7 September 1986. Several years later, her work was also included in Rasheed Araeen’s The Other Story exhibition. From 1990 onwards Himid has been on the faculty of the University of Central Lancashire, in the north of England.

Himid is a wide-ranging artist whose work embraces many themes. It has been observed that Himid’s practice can be divided into three areas: satirising white society, satirising white/European cultural orthodoxies and celebrating the creativity and resourcefulness of Black people and Black women. But Himid’s work does more than simply satirise and celebrate. Through her paintings she challenges dominant and oppressive versions of history, and in so doing, continually seeks to rescue Black historical figures from an ever-threatening obscurity. Typical in this regard is her 1987 work, Scenes from the Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, (watercolour and pencil on paper, 15 sheets). In this series, Himid depicts assorted scenes from the life and legend of Toussaint L’Ouverture - the ‘Gilded African’, the eighteenth century military commander and revolutionary who occupies such a respected position in Black history. On one of the sheets, beneath stylised renderings of the warrior statesman, Himid offers the following sentences: ‘Toussaint was known as The Centaur of the Savannahs he rode 125 miles a day. He could jump on a horse at full speed and was still a fine rider at 60’.

Himid’s work also has the aim of challenging and undermining patriarchal systems and patriarchal modes of thought and behaviour. To this end, she regularly employs humour, often producing caustic renderings of her tormentors in the form of wooden cut out figures. One such figure depicts a white man as a facile clown, chasing a Black woman with a carrot on a stick. Another earlier piece shows a white man masturbating over himself with an enormous penis in one hand. Out of his penis ejaculates the filth of the world. Warfare, destruction, pornography, exploitation and so on.

Perhaps some of Himid’s strongest work is that which celebrates the resilience and determination of Black women. Himid’s 1983 piece We will be consists of a wooden cut out figure - Harriet Tubman perhaps? The lower part of her dress is a visual cacophony of defiance and Black pride. Central to the piece is the text ‘We will be who we want where we want with whom we want in the way that we want when we want and the time is now and the place is here + there…’

Subsequently, Himid has produced sets of paintings, acrylic on canvas, such as Revenge (1992) and Beach House (1995). These are multi-faceted bodies of work that have multiple points of reference and often distinctive starting points. For example, Beach House was a series in which the artist used the beach house as a means of giving expression to reflections on history and identity.

For a period of time Himid worked closely, in a number of ways, with the Glasgow-born artist Maud Sulter (died 2008). Together they were responsible for the only British-produced book dedicated to examining and celebrating the work of Black women artists. The book, Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity, was published by Urban Fox Press 1990. As mentioned, her work was included in the landmark exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, 1989. Himid and Sulter contributed the essay A Statement from the Elbow Room, ‘Freedom and change: she who writes herstory rewrites history’ in the ‘Other Voices’ section of The Other Story catalogue.

It is a testament to the power, strength and appeal of Himid’s work that it has been used to illustrate the covers of several publications that seek to chronicle the Black British presence. These include Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, published by Chicago University Press in 1996, and, five years later, Companion to Contemporary Black British Culture, published by Routledge in 2001. A detail of one of Himid’s installations, Naming the Money (2004) graced the cover of Imagining Transatlantic Slavery, edited by Cora Kaplan and John Oldfield, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Since then, her work has been used on the covers of several other publications.

Himid spoke at the Shades of Black conference held at Duke University, 19 - 22 April 2001. Her paper, “Inside the Invisible: For/Getting Strategy” (part of ‘The Importance of Collaboration in the Development of Practice’ panel, 21 April 2001) is reproduced in Part One of the book Shades of Black, subtitled Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain. Likewise, Himid ‘s work was included in the book Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain.

Lubaina Himid was one of the artists in Myth and History,  the inaugural exhibition at The Bristol Gallery, 19 September - 29 October 2009. Dr Dorothy Rowe of University of Bristol curated the exhibition, which also featured Phil Sayers, Patrick Haines, Deborah van der Beek, Emma Tooth, Tina Hill, and Mark Parkinson.

Himid was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, announced in June 2010.

In early May 2017 it was announced that Himid was one of four artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize of that year. The other shortlisted artists were Hurvin Anderson, Andrea Büttner, and Rosalind Nashashibi. An exhibition of work by the four shortlisted artists was scheduled be held at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations from 26 September 2017 to 7 January 2018. The winner will be announced on 5 December 2017 at an award ceremony live on the BBC, the broadcast partner for the Turner Prize.

The Tate Turner Prize press release stated that Himid had been shortlisted “For projects including solo exhibitions Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies at Modern Art Oxford and Navigation Charts at Spike Island in Bristol, as well as her participation in group exhibition The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary. The jury praised these exhibitions for addressing pertinent questions of personal and political identity. As a key figure of the Black Arts Movement, Himid has consistently foregrounded the contribution of African diaspora to Western culture. Working across painting, installation, drawing and printmaking, and bringing both old and new work together, her work is both visually arresting and critical.” www.tate.org.uk/about/press-office/press-releases/turner-prize-2017-shortlist-announced (accessed 25 May 2017).

The artist’s web site is www.lubainahimid.info

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