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Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies at Modern Art Oxford

Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens

Far from being just an artist for art’s sake, Tanzanian born British artist Lubaina Himid describes herself as a political strategist that uses art as a visual language to encourage change. A prominent driving force in the British Black Art movement, her work deals with the representation of black lives in Western narratives through a process of overlaying and reappropriation, rewriting and retelling. Pointing to the invisibility of the black experience within prevalent cultural, historical and political narratives, Himid’s work is bold, bright and demands to be seen, often stopping you in your tracks with its emotive declarations and quite literally jumping straight out of the canvas.

Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change, 1984. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens

Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change, 1984. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens

There is a keen sense of rebellion in everything that Himid does. One of the largest works and the first piece you see as you walk in the gallery, Freedom and Change is a reinterpretation of Picasso’s Two Women Running on a Beach that depicts two black women in place of the white women in Picasso’s original piece, with the added embellishments of dogs and men’s heads in the sand jumping out of the side of the cloth canvas. This is a classic example of Himid’s exploration of typical artistic narratives, mischievously relishing in the act of putting two black women at the centre of the painting and making them larger than life. Similarly, she references Henri Matisse’s famous cutouts and uses the form to make a comment on the untold human stories of global textile production in Carpet. She makes her most defiant statement on the state of the Western art world in Bone in the China: Success to the Africa Trade. A flimsy cardboard pillar stands in the centre of the room on top of a representation of a marble floor, with the words ‘where are the memories, where are the horrors of black people’s lives’ scrawled across it. Here Himid scathingly comments on the stolen artefacts and experiences from Black people that lie dormant in Western museums and galleries, and questions the ethical functions of the museum itself, the idea of ownership and the theft of culture.

Lubaina Himid, Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (detail), 2007. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens. Photo Credit: Andy Keate

Lubaina Himid, Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (detail), 2007. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens.

Photo Credit: Andy Keate

Himid is not afraid to commandeer and reinterpret the work of others when exploring the reclaiming of her culture. This is the focus of the fourth gallery, where we see her ceramics project The Lancaster Dinner Service. Himid collected a large number of ceramics, adorned with traditional chinoiserie style patterns from around Lancaster, a prominent area in the slave trade, and painted over them with beautifully intricate images of bloated and grotesque white slave owners, unidentified black servants, African patterns and maps of the city. These ceramics bring to the forefront of our minds the forgotten faces and stories from this period by using a format associated with British heritage and colonial tradition as her canvas. Similarly, in Negative Positives, Himid collected daily editions of newspapers to find where Black celebrities were either directly or indirectly associated with negative headlines, and added her own signature shapes and colourful drawings to it. These veer from highlighting the beauty of the subject’s face or dress with corresponding colours and shapes to humorously commenting on the newspaper’s headline about ‘Venomous’ Venus Williams with a snake circulating around her. The meticulous collection and reinterpretation of these publications and artifacts showcase Himid’s refusal to let Black people’s misrepresentation slide, and a desire to take back as much of that space as possible.

Lubaina Himid - Invisible Strategies (35)

Lubaina Himid - Invisible Strategies (35)

Despite being titled Invisible Strategies, Lubaina Himid’s work in this exhibition is unashamedly visible and refuses to stay within the confines of her own artistic world, holding the rest of the art world and media to account. She experiments with our preconceived notions of Western Art and cleverly subverts them with various acts of rebellion, from often humorous yet critical doodles on newspaper covers, to a full-blown reimagining of archetypal examples of Western art. Just as black experiences and culture have been appropriated by the Western world, Himid appropriates and reclaims with layers of her own bright colours, traditional African patterns and passionate statements. Working across different artistic mediums, Himid’s work takes back the space and amplifies the forgotten Black voice with a vibrancy that not only makes her work politically thought-provoking and uniquely emotive, but instantly eye-catching, entertaining and ultimately beautiful to look at. In a world fraught with racial tension, Lubania Himid is a crucial voice and a perfect example of protest and finding representation in the artistic form.

Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies runs until 30 April 2017 at Modern Art Oxford. Find out more here.

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