As you step off the elevator in this highly anticipated solo exhibition by 2017 Turner Prize-winning Lubaina Himid, a medley of colorful flags wave as if to welcome you. Yellow, blue and oxblood red, they are adorned with messages such as there could be an endless ocean and why are you looking. These seven double-sided banners, which make up the installation How do you change spelling2018 look like Kanga, a type of cloth worn mostly by women in East Africa. Symbolizing fashion and freedom, Kanga in the 1880s, he identified with Swahili culture and rising national pride. Still Kanga, as we know it, is a hybrid: Swahili, Arab, Indian, and European merchants all contributed to its designs. Perhaps Himid’s use of these fabrics salutes her own mixed heritage: Born in Zanzibar to an English mother and an African father, she moved to Britain as a baby. If his textiles evoke a triumphal parade, they also generate the spirit of a politically charged gathering. She reminds us that British multiculturalism is linked to its maritime and colonial history.
“Himid’s work is a call to action,” says Michael Wellen, co-curator (along with Amrita Dhallu) of this sprawling exhibition, the largest gathering of the artist’s work to date. Made up of more than fifty works of art – paintings, “everyday objects“, poetic texts and room-filling installations – the exhibition spans Himid’s militant years in the 1980s, when she was a member of the British Black Arts Movement, to its containment paintings. , seen here for the first time. The scenic quality of Himid’s multimedia offerings speaks to his training in theater design. In a narrative painting, The operating table, 2019, three black women deliberate over a heavily modeled map. The map design bears a striking resemblance to Risk, a strategy game of diplomacy, conflict, and conquest. Do females deliberately plan their next moves? Or are they forced to play by someone else’s rules?
The specter of Europe’s colonial past haunts Himid’s work. If the ghost first appears playfully, it ends up making us shiver with shame. The Prowler: The Cabin, 2017, shows a black musician and a baker in a luxuriously equipped room. The first beats a drum; the latter (dressed in immaculate white) offers an invisible master a pastel pink cake. Behind them, a gray expanse of ocean can be seen. He seems to be fidgeting happily. In fact, the painting is inspired by an 1819 incident on the French slave ship The Prowler, where a contagious disease left the passengers blind. Thirty-six infected enslaved Africans were thrown overboard. Perspective is everything: the painting threatens to propel us into the frame or push the protagonists out of it. This is precisely what seems to have happened with the installation Jelly Mold Pavilions for Liverpool, 2010, a white table populated with candy-colored ceramic molds, as if they had fallen from Himid’s canvas. Rising from the sugar-white background, the delicate structures evoke the fairy-thread fantasies of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Nutcracker. But the appetizing spectacle leaves a bitter aftertaste: 19th-century sugar refiner Henry Tate, after whom the institution is named, may not have made his fortune directly on the back of slavery (as has been erroneously proclaimed), but the sugar beet is steeped in oppression, coloring Tate’s legacy no matter how we slice the pudding.
Elsewhere too, the staging makes a sinister slip into reality. In Old boat/new money, 2019, thirty-two gray-blue wooden planks painted with cowries are arranged on a white wall to simulate a giant wave. As we approach the planks, we hear the crash of the sea, carrying us to sandy shores. Our daydream of surfing doesn’t last long, considering that cowries were once used as currency for African slaves. As waves of sound overwhelm us, we too are actors in Himid’s drama: accomplices and ultimately culprits.