Invisibility made Visible: Stephanie Straine on Lubaina Himid

Within the framework of the Modern and Contemporary Cluster, the University of York welcomed Stephanie Straine for the curator’s talk “Invisible Strategies: Lubaina Himid and exhibition making”.

A renewed interest in Himid’s work arose within the last year, culminating in a collaboration of three museums to create the first retrospective exhibitions dedicated to Himid. Geographically spread across the UK, Himid’s artwork is displayed in Bristol at Spike Island with Navigation Charts, Nottingham Contemporary as part of the group exhibition The Place Is Here and the Modern Art Oxford with Invisible Strategies.

Installation View: Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies, Modern Art Oxford

During the talk, Stephanie Straine, the curator of Invisible Strategies, discussed her experience of working with Himid and the other institutions. Straine had come into contact with Himid in the 2014 group exhibition Keywords during her time working at the Tate Liverpool. Rather than perceiving her lack of expertise on Himid’s work as a negative, she saw it as an opportunity to be more self-reflective and open up a critical discourse. This critical discourse was of utter importance because Himid was being overlooked; she was invisible in the art world. Born in Tanzania, Himid moved to England as a young child and, as a black female artist, faced numerous instances of racism and sexism. In the 1980s she was one of the pioneers of the British black arts movement. Some of the artwork displayed in the Invisible Strategies exhibition were made at this time, but Straine emphasises that her “biting social satire is as relevant as ever”.

Because of the former invisibility, the purpose of these collaborative exhibitions is to provide a space for a black female artist. Not only that, but Himid herself wants to create a space for black people to be seen, to see and recognize themselves in her art. As echoes of the 80s, questions about representation arise. A platform for excluded black artists becomes a platform for an entirely excluded group. This is the aim. However, it is still a challenge for a space like the Modern Art Oxford, which is situated in the heart of the old city centre surrounded by established colleges and a rather homogenous group of intellectuals, tourists and middle to upper class people. The collaboration with galleries beyond Oxford allows for an extension of the usual visitor group. It is not only Himid who profits from her broader display, but the institutions themselves. Straine stresses that it is refreshing to experience collaboration and not a competition between art institutions.

Himid’s work shall make active. Dialogue is a key part in her works, evolving as part of the question of representation. In Navigation Charts at Spike Island the visitor is never passive but has to walk around cut-out figures in order to read poems on the back of each one. Additionally, speakers are installed and provide an audio experience – even closer to an active dialogue.

She who writes herstory rewrites history. – Maud Sulter, 1990

A lot of her work refers to established and canonical art. Himid rewrites history by appropriating work and thus including a black female artist in the entrenched history of art. In Freedom and Change (1984) – exhibited in Oxford – Himid refers back to Picasso’s painting Two Women Running on the Beach and changes the two women into two black women. Other similarities can be found in Matisse’s colour palette and Himid’s Five (1991). Of course, this is also slightly provocative towards the Modern Art Oxford since a lot of the referenced work has been exhibited by the museum itself. It has played a role in establishing certain artists and excluding others – if sometimes unconsciously.

Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change, 1984. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens.

In the last room of the exhibition Negative Positives (2007 – ongoing) is displayed. For this, Himid collected pages of The Guardian and drew attention to the presentation of black people. Through unintentional combinations of advertisements, photographs and text, black people become signifiers and this unconsciously alters the public perception of black people. However, Straine discussed Himid’s own uncertainty about the project; she did not know if it was right to create a memorial for an inherently unstable medium that is in a constant state of flux.

A critical point of view is always important. This is why the Modern Art Oxford has created a feedback wall at the end where visitors are asked to utter their thoughts. Giving former invisible artists platform is only the first step. Let’s see what the future holds and how other institutions deal with critiquing themselves.

It would definitely be interesting to explore every exhibition and get the overall experience. Take the train and some time!

Modern Art Oxford: Lubaina Himid - Invisible Strategies until 30 April 2017

Nottingham Contemporary: The Place is Here until 30 April 2017

Spike Island: Lubaina Himid – Navigation Charts until 26 March 2017

Symposium at Modern Art Oxford: Creative Gathering: She Who Writes Herstory Rewrites History 18 February 2017

Joëlle Warmbrunn

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