Like sentinels guarding her treasures Lubaina Himid’s African figures stand silent and proud next to important and signifying works of art around the Walker Art Gallery, positioned by Himid herself.
Diligent, sensitive and colourful is in their essence of being. Aspects of their personality, life and loves come across in a haunting, sorrowful way. Positioned next to hunting dogs in paintings, a grand fireplace which needs tending to, a magnificent handmade tapestry to sculptural figureheads and statues adorning majestic rooms.
Forgotten memories and past lives transform into iconic fragments of modern-day sculpture through the beauty of storytelling on simple painted plywood. Depicted in bright clothes, unusual stances, awkward poses and uncomfortable task making, each figure tells the tale of their own life story and profession demonstrating how enslaved people were glamourised by Europe’s wealthy class in the 18th and 19th centuries. Quite a number of the figures grab me in a surprising way by means of their impact next to the exhibits. Gethui and Aniweta by the huge masterpieces, Mandisa standing perfectly behind the bronze cast of ‘The Mower’ by William Hamo Thornycroft (1850 – 1925), Alile next to a red-headed goddess, painter Lubaina next to one of Rembrandt’s pupils’ paintings ‘Bust of a Man in Oriental Dress’ (1615 – 1630) and healer Olusade in front of a reclining nude.
Each figure intrigues with its position and pose, flaunted in vibrant, luxurious silks designed to detract from their real identities as slaves. ‘Naming the Money’ is part of a collection of 100 life-size painted figures that Himid donated to Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum in 2013. An accompanying soundtrack narrates the African and European identities of each figure along with their old and new professions, an eerie legacy to new stories being told by present-day immigrants.
Alongside the figures, Himid has selected pieces aligned to the theme of relating to the everyday. In ‘Meticulous Observations’ familiar moments, people or objects reveal themselves to be deeper contemplations of ‘the self’ in the guise of domestic jugs, still life flowers, obscured photographs of a young girl to linear perforations in time and space as depicted by Bridget Riley.
Himid’s own watercolours draw inspiration from the life of Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, an 18th century military commander who was a former slave. Holding a respected position in Black history as one of the leaders in the Haitian revolution which went on to become an independent state with L’Ouverture as their ruler. Her watercolours show his life in a series of comic-style stories continuing the theme of what is important and significant through the gestures of daily rituals.
Walking back towards the entrance into the sculpture room is the entrancing figure of Rashida in the centre. Like a butterfly caught in a jar or a dancing figure in a music box, she looks resplendent amongst the sculptures but trapped in the glass dome.
Seeing the exhibits up close I get a fuller sense of each figures’ past and present. Their identity is tied in with the skills they had before enslavement and how the wealthy has turned these into the trivial and unimportant. They are there simply to show off and be seen, not heard. Lubaina Himid conveys their inner resolve and sense of identity aptly in front of the Walker’s magnificent works of art. The plywood figures themselves become works of art and at the centre of it all are the observations of other female artist’s coming together to give additional narrative and interpretation of the everyday. And the everyday has never seemed so poignant.
Lubaina Himid: Meticulous Observations and Naming the Money
Until 18th March 2018
Walker Art Gallery
Liverpool, L3 8EN