lubaina himid isn’t proud to be the first black woman to win the turner prize
She thinks it’s a disgrace someone didn’t win earlier.
This article originally appeared in The Radical Issue, no. 350, Spring 2018.
Late in 2017, Lubaina Himid became the first black woman to win the Turner Prize. The prize, arguably the most prestigious formal recognition of a British artist, has run for 34 years, but the rules were changed this year, scrapping the upper age limit. At 63 years old, Lubaina also became the prize’s oldest winner ever.
It cemented a landmark year for the artist, who emerged in the 80s as part of a generation of black British artists fighting against the racist politics and conservative art world in Thatcher’s Britain. Alongside artists like Keith Piper, John Akomfrah, Sonia Boyce, and inspired by theorists like Stuart Hall, the group wanted to decolonize the arts establishment, bring the voices from the old British Empire into galleries, and sought cultural representation for minorities in the UK.
They used new forms of media, took to television, made films, organized symposiums, and exhibitions to promote themselves and challenge the establishment. Lubaina was at the heart of it all; not that she felt like an artistic pioneer or political radical at the time. “I felt like an idiot,” she explains, “for being optimistic enough to believe that things could change.”
Too young myself to remember the struggles they fought for and the art they created first hand, I actually came across Lubaina’s work for the first time at Frieze, at the booth of her London gallery, Hollybush Gardens, about four years ago. It was love at first sight. Without any context, the painting seemed starkly modern, if strangely out of place, a quiet power to it. Then I found myself going to the provincial Dutch city of Eindhoven to see more of her work, placed in context alongside the rest of the British Black Arts Movement, and other radical art groups of the 80s across Europe. The moment in the UK felt ripe for a re-evaluation of this period, unjustly sidelined by the bombastic YBAs in the Blairite 90s.
“I try to do what I can along with thousands of others to make it right. The suppression of the contribution made by black people to the wealth and cultural landscape of Europe and the Americas is enough reason for me to spend 40 years trying to fill in the gaps.”
At its root; Lubaina’s work revolves around reappropriating ideas and images from art and cultural history. Her art celebrates black excellence and creativity, and highlights the ignored achievements of the African diaspora. It’s about filling in the blanks of history — “the cruel invisibility” — as she terms it. “The history of art needs to be rewritten,” she says, humbly adding: “I try to do what I can along with thousands of others to make it right. The suppression of the contribution made by black people to the wealth and cultural landscape of Europe and the Americas is enough reason for me to spend 40 years trying to fill in the gaps.”
The subtle emotional and intellectual force of her work, and its political prescience, mean that down the decades, Lubaina’s influence on contemporary art has only grown. Especially as the problems the British Black Arts Movement of the 80s was fighting against haven’t gone away. “It’s shocking, but not surprising,” she states. It hasn’t changed, it still need to be fought against, it still needs to be resisted.
There’s been steadily growing interest in the scene and those years though, the younger generation appreciative of their power and persistence. But her work is only “influential” she insists, because of everyone else involved in the movement. “There were hundreds of us working together at the same time to change things, and I won’t ever know whether it will make a real difference because I can’t live long enough — it’s all too slow.” There’s a sense in the art world that things are changing, the old establishment is crumbling away, those who’ll replace them are young, progressive, political, engaged, fed-up of seeing the same shows with the same boring white artists, the same emotionless conceptual conceits. “This generation can see that their parents experienced life in one way but their predecessors in art museums and especially art galleries left us out and refused to expose our contribution to press and television.”
“I’m interested in giving audiences agency rather than treating them as if they are stupid or passive victims of attendance statistics."
She spent much of 2017 working on two solo retrospectives, one in Bristol, one in Oxford, and an exhibition dedicated to the British Black Arts Movement in Nottingham. One central formal aspect of Lubaina’s work over the years has been the the cut out; a freestanding sculptural-figurative painting. They’re performative and engrossing, you lose yourself in an ocean of bodies and stories. “I’m interested in giving audiences agency rather than treating them as if they are stupid or passive victims of attendance statistics,” Lubaina explains of what makes them so powerful. “I make work which seeks to understand and make visible, that curious people with real lives are going to come to the showing space looking for conversation, I set up situations in which dialogue and action should be the result of the encounter.”
It was these shows that saw her nominated for the Turner Prize. “I wasn’t expecting to win,” she begins, “I didn’t even think about being nominated, even when I heard they’d changed the age limit. There comes a time when mad things like the Turner Prize fade from one's radar.”
For Lubaina, there’s no sense of pride in being the first black woman to win the Turner Prize. For her, the recognition only starkens the racist-bias of the art world. “When you list the women of color up for it for all those years, in the early stages of their careers, when it would have been useful. It’s a disgrace, really.”
Photography Maxwell Tomlinson.
Grooming Shiori Takahashi. Photography assistance Rory James Cole. Grooming assistance Megumi Sano.