Publication:

The Guardian Weekly - 2021-11-26

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Breaking the rules

Culture

Lubaina Himid By Charlotte Higgins PHOTOGRAPH BY Katherine Anne Rose

Lubaina Himid has waited a long time for a show at London’s Tate Modern. She is now 67, and in 2017 she had the bittersweet honour of being the first Black woman, and the oldest-ever artist (at 63), to win the Turner prize. Bittersweet because “I knew very definitely, in the way that you don’t necessarily if you’re 45, that I had more years behind me than in front. You could think, if you won it at 45, that you might have the same amount of time again to try things, to fail, to try things again … I suppose at 63 I thought: ‘Well, at best, I’ve probably got 20 years of making.’” We are in Preston, the city where she has lived since the age of 36. She holds a chair at the University of Central Lancashire, and her studio, where we are talking, is in a Victorian block right in the city centre, looking out over the covered market and a step away from the grandly Grecian Harris Museum. All is neat and white in her eyrie, aside from a few unfinished canvases that are bright with blues, oranges and greens. On a table are tubes of acrylic paint, set out in ordered rows. A sizable chunk of floorspace is occupied by an antique handcart that at some point she will use to make a work; there are some old wooden drawers whose interiors she has painted with male heads. Wasn’t the win an enormous spur, I ask? “That, of course, is what happened,” she says. “And it has been fabulous.” The real turning point, she says, was being picked up by a London gallery, Hollybush Gardens, in 2013. Until then she’d been working away steadily and successfully, showing regionally, but without recognition by the big metropolitan institutions. That’s all changed now, and since the win her international reputation has grown, too, with shows at Wiels in Brussels and the New Museum in New York. For the big one, at Tate Modern, she is eagerly trying to “break rules”, she says. Just now she is dealing with the paradox that once a work leaves her studio and enters the museum it stops being provisional – something she handles, changes, paints over – and becomes a precious artefact. “You want to say: ‘It’s only art, it’s OK.’ But they treat it with incredible respect. And then perhaps expect the audience will be careless with it. But I’m a great believer in audiences. I’m trying to make this show so that the audience member believes they’re the most important person in the room.” The whole exhibition is designed to be like a theatre set, in which you, the visitor, are the protagonist – completing the works by your presence. There will be a sonic element to the show, composed by her close friend and collaborator, Magda Stawarska-Beavan, drawing out the sound that she feels is implicit in her work. She gestures to a canvas she’s working on, a large scene of two women on the deck of a boat. “The sea is making a noise, isn’t it? The birds are making a noise, the boat’s creaking away … ” Himid’s work beckons you into it. There’s always an invitation for you to step on to the deck of the boat, to join the party; or, if it’s a work such as The Operating Table, in which three seated women seem to be debating how to design a city, Himid has left space to join them at their table. The works show dramatic moments, but not in a grandiloquent sense: no Chekhovian gun is introduced in her paintings that must, perforce, go off. Rather, she shows us the small, gestural dramas of daily life, encounters like the ones she sees being played out outside her studio window. Her paintings exhibit “private moments in public places”, she says. The small decisions on which entire lives might hang. Conversation is often key: aside from her groups of competent women, she often paints dandyish fellows, each “trying quite hard not to be the most dominant man in the room”. She points out that in the history of art, men are often pictured owning or dominating something: her work is, she says, “much more interested in how people are; people, that is, who don’t often get painted … There’s drama in the everyday.” Much of this dramatic impulse comes from her early training in the theatre. Himid’s British mother met her father, who was from Zanzibar, when they were students. They settled together on the Tanzanian archipelago, but her father, a teacher, died from malaria soon after Himid was born. Her mother – who died last year, aged 92 – brought her four-month-old baby to the UK, and settled in London. She was a textile designer, who passed on her eye for pattern to her daughter, and often took the teenage Himid to museums and department stores. Himid remembers seeing Bridget Riley’s 1968 painting Late Morning on one of these trips, in the Tate gallery, hung behind some Giacometti sculptures. She found herself absolutely struck by “the sheer gall of Bridget Riley to say what she says with those paintings – to imagine she can manipulate you in such a way so that you want to look, then can’t look – that kind of: ‘Come here … then fuck off.’ They are the sorts of works that really taught me what paint could do.” Nevertheless, she was drawn to study theatre design rather than fine art – even if it was rather a disappointment to her, with her teachers invested in the velvet-and-gilt world of ballet and opera rather than in the more political, European theatre that she was excited by. After college, she did a bit of this and that – waitressing, working in galleries and designing restaurants. It was in restaurant spaces that she started putting together exhibitions of her and her peers’ work. “I absolutely knew from an early age that African people, Black people, made art, but everywhere around was telling me that we didn’t,” she says. Eventually, in the 1980s, she ended up doing a cultural history MA at the Royal College of Art, and sought out other Black and Asian artists. “And of course they were working all up and down the country: Eddie Chambers, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Sonia Boyce, Veronica Ryan, Sutapa Biswas … various of us in different ways gathered those people together and started to put on shows.” These and other artists of colour, like Himid herself, have found themselves thrust into the limelight recently, with prominent exhibitions and projects. “They were always artists of quality,” says Himid. She 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 those artists that were in their 20s in the 1980s are seen by younger [Black and Asian] artists to be still making it. I think, though, that younger artists are also thinking: ‘Yeah, whatever. I can do something more interesting, better, more experimental, more dynamic.’ I would hope that now there’s no stopping that momentum.” Himid wants her exhibition to be a place of encounter, a place where action might start. That’s what drew her to the theatre in the first place: “It seemed like it was somewhere you can make things happen, where things change, costumes change, sets change, locations change, emotions change.” Her work shows – and takes pleasure in – its own artifice. “What I want,” she says, “is for people to see that you can, for example, turn a jelly mould into a model for a pavilion, or you can put a chair on the back of a cutout to make it stand up. That actually the ability to shift something from this to that is possible … It’s not easy to make a painting, it’s actually very difficult. But it is possible to change something about yourself or about your surroundings or about the world. I want people to think: “If she can do it, then it must be possible for me to do it, too.’”

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