At Tate Modern, Lubaina Himid Sets Us on a Theatrical Odyssey
Lubaina Himid, installation view of “Lubaina Himid” at Tate Modern, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Tate Modern, London.
At the opening of Lubaina Himid’s long-anticipated monographic exhibition at Tate Modern, I witnessed a five-year-old visitor gesturing towards people in the paintings who attempt to navigate a brooding sea; he told his mother the figures were gods. “What are gods?” His mother asked. “They are people finding their way,” he replied.
Meandering and highly experimental, Himid’s exhibition at Tate Modern (on view through July 3, 2022) rewards those who are willing to bring their own story to the work and embrace the role of protagonist. “I’m trying to make this show so that the audience member believes they’re the most important person in the room,” Himid said in a recent interview with The Guardian. Jolted out of the familiar groove of passive spectatorship, you find yourself front, back, and center stage with Himid’s works, embarking on a theatrical expedition.
Lubaina Himid, Metal Handkerchief - Saw/Flag, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens.
Himid, who won the Turner Prize in 2017, is best known for paintings with minimal compositions in luminous colors that move between the parody and pastiche of 18th-century artworks—a period she often references to address the history of slavery and colonialism. Yet for her first exhibition at Tate Modern, which many agree is long overdue, Himid departs from the expected. The exhibition seems to be an attempt to overturn the notion of the museum exhibition itself.
First, Himid presents a set of literal tools (with which to dismantle the master’s house, perhaps?): a series of instructional paintings that were also seen at Himid’s 2019 solo exhibition at the New Museum, “Work From Underneath.” Borrowing from the language of health and safety manuals, the bold, graphic paintings depict hammers, saws, nails, and other building materials inscribed with commands to “allow for short breaks” and “keep moving parts lubricated.” This sets up the premise for the exhibition, in which Himid nudges the viewer to invent their own story, with whatever tools they might have in their own metaphorical toolbox.
Lubaina Himid, Ball on Shipboard, 2018. © Lubaina Himid. Courtesy of the artist and Tate Modern.
The stage is set—but Himid deliberately stops short of providing spectacle or drama, instead leaving space. In fact, she deals poignantly with space and scale at the Tate, whether it’s in the vastness that surrounds the figures in her paintings, or through several installations that envelop the viewer, creating a third space—a hybrid in-betweenness, where new ideas and conversations can be generated.
Himid’s interest in theater dates back to the 1970s, when she completed a degree in theater design at Wimbledon College of Art (later going on to gain an MA from the Royal College of Art and emerging as part of the trailblazing Blk Art Group); it has remained at the core of her practice. Here, her famous installation of satirical tableaux of cut-out historical figures, A Fashionable Marriage (1987), is on display, borrowing from set-building techniques and referencing William Hogarth but firing at the avarice of 1980s London, then under the governance of Margaret Thatcher. Hogarth, Himid has stated, “fulfilled my desire for spectacle and drama.”
Lubaina Himid, installation view of A Fashionable Marriage, 1986, at Nottingham Contemporary, 2017. Photo © Nottingham Contemporary. Photo by Andy Keate. Courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens.
When Himid made A Fashionable Marriage, it was born out of frustration not only with the political order of the day, but also with the art world and her place within it. She remembers it as a “full time struggle,” in which her experimental ideas were rarely understood and barely acknowledged. British society today under Boris Johnson’s conservative government looks eerily similar to Thatcher’s, and Himid’s experimental artmaking is, judging by the lukewarm reception of the British press to her exhibition, still often misunderstood.
Himid’s ongoing interest in theater could also be attributed to her concern with transformation: Her art is a Brechtian hammer to reality, highlighting the way things are made and can be enacted. Laying labor bare, the Tate exhibition exposes the hammering, sawing, nailing, tacking, and brushing. Things are gutted, hollowed out: the huge, arching spars of an overturned ship in Old Boat/New Money (2019); portraits painted on the intimate interiors of empty drawers; a bus shelter devoid of people.
Lubaina Himid, installation view of Blue Grid Test, 2020, in “Lubaina Himid” at Tate Modern, 2021. © Lubaina Himid. Courtesy of the artist and Tate Modern, London.
Found, everyday objects are exuberantly repurposed with paint and ideas. In the installation Blue Grid Test (2020), made with Himid’s long-term collaborator Magda Stawarska-Beavan, the artists take language apart, reciting the word for “blue” in English, French, and Flemish, played through an installation of speakers that stand at the same height as people. Wrapped around the walls, surrounding the viewer, are objects collected from Himid’s studio and home, adorned with 64 patterns from around the world that mimic 64 bars of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” interspersed with the recordings of Himid’s voice. The work seems to question what makes a masterpiece, dissembling it into constituent parts and upending the senses—color becomes sound; image becomes word; bodies are disembodied.
The mathematical precision of Himid’s work also reveals an enduring interest in how things are coded, in symbols and symmetries and the possibility of disrupting the system by reordering it. This theme extends throughout the works in the exhibition, into the paintings that hang in the penultimate room, in which figures are captured in moments of quiet contemplation and discussion; we see private moments and small gestures that nonetheless may result in pivotal changes. In one painting, Six tailors (2019), a group of men sit with spools of cotton and tools, trying to share space and create collaboratively; in another, The Operating Table (2019), a group of women architects consider plans for building a city. On the wall, a text asks us: “We live in clothes, we live in buildings—do they fit us?”
Lubaina Himid, The Operating Table, 2017–18. © Lubaina Himid. Courtesy of the artist and Tate Modern.
Lubaina Himid, Man in a Shirt Drawer 2017–18. © Lubaina Himid. Courtesy of the artist and Tate Modern.
The answer, inaudibly, is a resounding no—but here are the tools to rebuild, to rethink. Himid shows us that change exists all around us, in the everyday and the overlooked, but it’s up to us to activate it. As poet Gwendolyn Brooks once said, “Art is not an old shoe; it’s something you have to work in the presence of. It urges voyages.” Himid sets us forth on a path—like gods—to find our way.
And yet—on your way out of the show, the final installation, an empty bus shelter of sorts, is captioned with the question: “Do you want an easy life?” In Himid’s typically wry humor, she suggests that just like Odysseus returning to the island of Ithaca from Troy, arriving at the destination is only the beginning.