Stepping into Lubaina Himid’s current installation at the Harris reminded me of a murder mystery dinner event where a number of identifiable suspects all gather in the same grand room waiting to be over-analysed and dissected by an amateur sleuth in attendance. Himid’s line-up of suspects in ‘A Fashionable Marriage’ just happen to include Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagen, several signatories, consorts, musicians and passer-by’s. Incredibly I’m not far short of the truth. In her own words…
“It is the countess’s morning levee after she has slept with her lover, the lawyer. She has a castrato singing, her hairdresser, a young girl and two black servants listening. They are all disguising the fact she is making another arrangement to see her lover while the count is away. In my cut-out installation, she is Mrs Thatcher, her lover Ronald Reagan, the people are mostly from the art world: the critic, the dealer, 1980s artists, eager feminists…” A virtuoso piece, it is brazen in its details. Not far from the bride is written: “The white of a plot.”
Money, politics, identity, sex and race set-the-scene for an almighty blockbuster. Hitting out at the hypocrisy of the art world and Eighties society. Throughout all the rooms, Himid is additionally referencing what its like to be black in arts education and asks black artists to join her in discussions around this topic.
“We black artists were kind of held in a strange wilderness land – we were showing, but we were just held at a level. It’s that usual British thing of giving the peasants beer at 8p a pint so that the revolution doesn’t happen.”
The adjoining room features ‘Bone in the China: Success to the Africa Trade’ (1985) asking ‘Where are the memories … of black people’s lives’? Using ceramic as a main feature of the display to appropriate the anonymity of enslaved people traded from Africa by the British. Nearby a row of 32 small individual paintings gives voices to the patients excluded from society in a now abandoned Norwegian leprosy hospital. Each one is a different pattern in lots of colours with a memory written on its label. Similar to the naming of painted black people in ‘Naming the Money’ (Walker Art Gallery, 2018) these memories are made-up recollections of each person’s lives, memories and hopes for life before they lost their liberty and body to leprosy.
“In the same way that slaves were more than slaves, lepers are more than just people with bits of their bodies missing through disease.”
A discrete display titled ‘Drowned Orchard Secret Boatyard: Tools, Box, Basket, Hairstyles’ (2014) consists of four small planks of painted wood originally placed in the Gwangju Folk Museum in South Korea. Each one is different and explores a cycle of destruction and renewal witnessed by a loss of skills and ability to make do and mend.
In the smallest of the three rooms, ‘The Feast Wagons’ is an installation of handcarts painted with brightly coloured exotic animals from beetles to spiders and fish. Originally a response to the flow of Syrian migrants in 2016. Handcarts are often used when moving to safety and the painted images simply imply the ‘dangerous other’ when thinking about refugees.
Each element focuses on cultural identity, race and reclaiming identities. After several decades her work finally gained the ultimate recognition following her Turner Prize win in 2017. Her art inspires a new generation of artists, particularly black and female artists, and crosses cultures with stories about people with little or no voice. Her piece ‘Meat Mountains’ (1985) screams out a world in crisis and for women to turn their energies on the restoration of the planet. So many topics Himid was delving into in the 1980’s are just as relevant, if not more, now.
On until 8th June
Harris Museum & Art Gallery
Preston, PR1 2PP