Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 72 × 96".

Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 72 × 96".

Lubaina Himid

Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 72 × 96".

Lubaina Himid has embraced her artistic practice as an organizer, a cultural and political activist, an educator, and a leader in the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s––a pivotal decade for British culture and politics. Alongside her own work, she curated exhibitions of other female black artists at a time when they were excluded from institutional recognition. “Unrecorded Truths,” the title of a 1986 group show she organized, exemplifies her lifelong quest to reveal the concealed histories of colonialism and the diaspora, and to assert black artists’ place in the Western art canon: “We are claiming what is ours and making ourselves visible.”

Three prominent British institutions collaborated to host concurrent exhibitions that amounted to Himid’s first major retrospective. “Invisible Strategies” at Modern Art Oxford surveyed Himid’s paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and works on paper from the ’80s to the present. Veracity and human resilience underpin her art; many of her works subvert established histories and appropriate familiar imagery to realize a contemporary relevance. Depictions of the sea, African textiles, and a palette of tropical colors are found throughout Himid’s oeuvre as reminders, or memorials, of a hidden collective trauma. Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, 2007, is a collection of traditional china on which Himid has painted the faces of slaves, illuminating that they, too, were commodities. Throughout her work, the harrowing past still haunts the present––enigmatic but always in plain sight. Her painting Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016, a group portrait of well-dressed contemporary black figures socializing within an architectural space, edges on the surreal: One figure has the head of a bird, while another holds out a swath of African patterned fabric; an open window reveals a churning gray sea. The chic setting, evoking the present-day comfort of its inhabitants, is jarred by the ominous sea; a piece of cloth with a hidden past; and the uncanny presence of a bird-headed guest—a messenger perhaps. All allude to a horrific history of struggle and pain: The Rodeur was a French slave ship on which an untreatable eye disease spread rapidly throughout its human cargo on the Middle Passage in 1819; the slaves, no longer sellable, were drowned so that the slave traders could claim insurance. Again, the invisible past impinges on the present.

“Navigation Charts,” at Spike Island, presented five bodies of work, from 1999 to the present. Among them was the absorbing installation Naming the Money, 2004, consisting of one hundred life-size, stylized, painted cutout plywood figures representing Africans brought to Europe as servants. Whereas European paintings often showed servants in the shadows to denote the patron’s wealth, Himid positions these servants prominently, restoring an individuality and a voice by providing an inscription on the back of each one with his or her name and personal interests: MY NAME IS HOATITI / THEY CALL ME JACK / I USED TO EXPLORE CAVES / NOW I DIG TUNNELS / BUT I HAVE THE EARTH. An accompanying soundscape collages music from different cultures that came to Europe over the years. Characteristically, Himid discloses what she calls “a recognition of the rich and complicated contribution to the culture and the economy made by those who have come from somewhere else.”

At Nottingham Contemporary, “The Place Is Here,” curated by Nick Aikens and Sam Thorne, with Nicola Guy, presented more than one hundred works by Himid and her contemporaries from the British Black Arts avant-garde—more than thirty artists and collectives all told. Highlighting the urgency of conversations about nationality and racial identity, the experimental films of Isaac Julien—whose Territories (1984) poetically examines tensions around the annual Notting Hill Carnival—and the Black Audio Film Collective/John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986), inspired by the 1985 riots in the Handsworth section of Birmingham as well as in London, reappraise history and its present relevance. As stated in Handsworth Songs, “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.” The show’s title was taken from one of Himid’s exhibited works, We Will Be, 1983, a life-size cutout figure emblazoned with collaged images and text, proclaiming the right to be visible. There is a transformative element to all of Himid’s work. Her art is about exchange, engaging an audience to understand that they have the power to alter society and change history. We are all invited to shift something.

Lauren Dyer Amazeen