Setting the scene
Having spent many hours of my own time in Modern Art Oxford, I’ve noticed that the curators have a habit of bringing back artwork to coincide with the same issues that have resurfaced in our society and culture. Whether it’s intentionally or unintentionally I can’t say for sure but this time around, I poked my head in to see Invisible Strategies, an exhibition featuring the work of Lubaina Himid.
The reasoning behind the name, Invisible Strategies, comes from wanting to correct the Western bias in portraying African History. We all know the slave trade was horrifically inhumane but if I look back on my primary school trips, I recall being told of how proud our country was for its colonial settlers, those who travelled great distances at risk of peril to discover the wider world. I’m sure now we can all detect how misconstrued the almost-Hollywood status is that’s been given to them. It’s not until I saw Himid’s work at MAO that I realised to what degree.
I can divide Himid’s exhibition into two stages.
First, an emotionally weighted set of paintings, asking you to put yourself in the shoes of, or more accurately, the dreams of the forgotten people.
Second, her breakdown of our stereotypical visualisations of black characters through her manipulation of items such as newspapers and pottery.
Whilst the message and audience of Himid’s work are crystal clear, there’s definitely something to draw on in her character and her technique as a woman.
Thanks to MAO, her work has been resurrected and added to in the light of an age where young women aren’t afraid to be seen as powerful. She’s been going for thirty years on this. The patience in her voice is what gives her work strength. As a society, we’ve never been closer to stamping out racism, sexism, and homophobia.
In this “Trump era”, we could all do with a little patience to push through and reject the attitudes that we know can’t morally stand the test of time. Prominent in the 80s, Himid was born in Zanzibar in 1954 and moved to England to gain a Masters in Cultural History at the Royal College of Art in London, her graduating thesis titled Young Black Artists in Britain Today. Her career sees her as a curator and a scholar as well as an artist. MAO regards her as one of the, “pioneers of the British Black Arts Movement” and Nottingham Contemporary have given her a concurrent show with MAO with the specific intention of trying to raise her profile.
Her painting series Plan B (1999-2000) suggests what the mental image of hope looked like to those who suffered from the transatlantic slave trade. Each painting was a brightly coloured room, always with a view of the ocean and filled with empty chairs, waiting for them. Everybody is hit a desolate riff with me – Himid’s depictions of hope are so painfully simple compared to the complex ones we allow ourselves in modern life.
On the far right of the painting, she’s included text to suggest what the character could physically be doing – “everybody is darning”. The text is repetitive but Himid’s choice of yellow on yellow conveys an element of the delirium people might have experienced where the text is a struggle to read. Paired with the clinical walls of MAO’s gallery space, there’s a dizziness to witnessing her work.
In her series Negative Positives (2007-ongoing), Himid weaponises newspapers with paint to reduce front page news to what it really is – a decorative front to hide the real scandal, the sexist and racist bias in our publications. She mutes the plausible deniability that our current media claim to have in their bid to wash over how our society is changing for the better and best of all, she doesn’t need to be aggressive to have an impact. She’s direct, funny and above all, she’s smart in her use of materials. A shining example of how to listen and break down an argument – without even having to open her mouth.
Himid says from the very beginning that she’s no paint maestro which, when you consider the success of this exhibition, is an important point when trying to solidify conceptual art’s place in our budgets. Conceptual art has made strong ground in the last decade but it still has a long way to go before the general public fully recognise its positive role in society. With arts funding constantly under threat, the public need to spend a minute in understanding the therapeutic/empathetic/educational role artists play within any given community. I’m a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 19-year-old female from the UK. If I can walk into Himid’s exhibition about racial inequality and walk out feeling sickened and confused at the ignorance and lack of solutions present after all this time, then when are we ever going to respect that we need more than just words to understand each other?
She encourages substance in communication. It’s one thing to have the opportunity to speak but it’s another for that to actually reach out to people in the modern world. Now that we have social media, it’s not hard to have a voice for the simple sake of having a voice. Her words are clever and considered. She also hasn’t given herself the personal goal of resolving all the world’s problems. Instead, her message is about education and discussion, a step in the right direction when it comes down to making equality’s values stick in those who deny them.
Why Champion Her?
Overall, Himid is indispensable in the art world. Not because she provides the answers to the tough questions but because she initiates the conversation, one that isn’t a shouting match between two sides. Without compromise, she cuts the rubbish and plays a vital role in helping encourage empathy, finesse and diplomacy, things that we vitally need on tap.
Written by Brittany Sutcliffe.
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