Work from Underneath
Lubaina Himid at the New Museum

“I think of myself as a painter but at the same time as a cultural activist,” says Lubaina Himid. Migration, racism, and cliché representations of black people in the media and art are central themes of her work. Himid was born on the East African island of Zanzibar in 1954 and grew up in Great Britain, where she played an important role in the Black Arts Movement of the 1980s and 1990s. For a long time she was only known to insiders. But that changed in 2017, when she became the first woman to receive the Turner Prize. A year previously, several of works on paper were purchased for the Deutsche Bank Collection. This summer, the New Museum in New York is devoting a large-scale exhibition to the artist. On view are her latest works: sculptures, paintings, sound installations, and textiles that deal with the ambivalent effect of architecture and language—both can create community, but also exclusion.

Work from Underneath is the programmatic title of the exhibition, Himid’s first show in the USA. In it, she continues her investigation of things “that have been swept under the rug of history,” with the omissions, contradictions, and repressed chapters of a history that is still written predominantly by white people. For Naming the Money, her ensemble of 100 life-size figures that were sawn out of wood and painted, Himid did research on the fate of black slaves who worked in Great Britain as domestic workers, musicians, and acrobats. The artist gave them back their history, complete with their original names, which they were forced to change. “The stories I tell often come from books that are virtually unknown or are told to me by historians,” she explains. “My project consists in filling these gaps, painting these stories, making the invisible visible.”      

While major themes such as slavery and colonialism form the historical backdrop to her work, Himid’s paintings usually relate episodes from daily life. With their radiant colors and graphic style, they recall Pop Art as well as hand-made store signs of West Africa. Texts repeatedly play an important role in her work. For example, in her drawings based on colorful fabrics, called “kangas,” which are worn in many African countries as skirts or dresses. Their characteristic design—a clearly separated frame enclosing images of things such as palms and flowers, which are accompanied by a slogan—inspired the artist to create one of her most important work groups. Instead of the usual sayings, Himid’s “Kangas” contain quotes from African-American writers and activists such as James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. Slogans like “How do you spell change?” and “So many dreams” point to unfilled longings and the dream of a better, more just life.
A.D.

Lubaina Himid: Work from Underneath
New Museum, New York
June 26 – September 22, 2019