Lubaina Himid: An art star in the ascendant, but no overnight sensation

A week after being awarded the Turner Prize, the artist Lubaina Himid comes to meet me at Preston train station. It has been snowing, and my train is late. As we walk to her handsome home studio in a leafy Georgian street, she admits that so many people had approached to congratulate her while waiting at the station that she had become quite embarrassed.

“This kind of big love on the streets of Preston is extraordinary. So strange,” she says. The dresser in Himid’s front parlour is covered in cards from well-wishers: during our interview a neighbour drops in with a gift. It seems many people around Himid, in Preston and beyond, feel emotionally invested in her work and have taken pleasure in the recognition of it.

Lubaina Himid: I just happened to tick every box

Lubaina Himid: I just happened to tick every box

It has been quite the year for Himid. When we last spoke, back in January, she was installing two retrospective shows – at Spike Island, Bristol, and Modern Art Oxford – as well as The Place is Here, a touring survey of the work of black artists in 1980s Britain that drew heavily on her role as a curator and archivist. Since then she has completed commissions for Folkestone and Hull, and opened further shows in Liverpool and Karlsruhe, Germany.

Next year the pace picks up: in the first six months there’s an exhibition of new works at her London gallery Hollybush Gardens followed by commissions for Glasgow International, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Knole House, the Berlin Biennial and a homecoming at the Harris Museum in Preston.

So, an art star in the ascendant, for sure, but Himid is not quite the overnight sensation portrayed by the media following her Turner Prize success. As well as teaching at the University of Central Lancashire (that’s Professor Lubaina Himid, MBE, to you) she has been making and showing work for more than four decades and is represented in public collections around the UK. But there has, she says, until recently been externally imposed limits to her status within the art world.

“We black artists,” she says, “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.”

A generational exchange of power fomented change. The “last vestiges of that post-war, tight-arsed, grey suit crap” that had dominated the British art landscape made way for a new wave of younger curators, critics and museum directors – many of them female – who noticed “something missing” in the art historical narrative.

Recent exhibitions such as Tate’s Soul of a Nation and The Place is Here are starting to fill in the gaps, as are spirited galleries such as Hollybush Gardens, who contacted Himid out of the blue five years ago after seeing her fierce work from the 1980s in an exhibition catalogue.

In Himid’s bright first-floor studio, a large new painting is in progress: two black couples are caught in ambiguous embrace on the deck of a ship in front of a series of pinkish pulleys and a silvery grey sea. As in many of Himid’s paintings the colours are exciting – fervent ultramarine, pea green, hot orange and burgundy – creating a seductive foil for odder forces at play.

“It’s designed to be the kind of work you see from a distance, half of it in another room, and you just go to it because you have to,” she says. Himid has a wilful affection for “vulgar” art. This new painting, as with the much-loved earlier work Between the Two My Heart is Balanced (1991, currently on show at Tate St Ives) draws some of its composition from a work by James Tissot, whose lavish depictions of flamboyant Victorian costume and female relationships Himid finds irresistible while noting that “he wasn’t even fashionable in his own time”.

Lined with historical and art historical tomes, Himid’s studio is testament to a roving and at times eccentric pursuit of knowledge. Practical Poultry Keeping and Gardening sits alongside The Image of the Black in Western Art, artist monographs and books of Georgian caricatures. There’s a section, too, on the history and geography of Zanzibar, Himid’s place of birth, which she left with her British mother as an infant following the sudden death of her father.

All these diverse elements make their way into her work. The Georgian caricatures, or versions of them, decorate Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (2007), currently on show as part of the Turner Prize exhibition in Hull. In it, Himid draws a line of connection between British wealth and the enslaved Africans working out of sight on plantations in the colonies.

Despite my strong protestations about the strength of her portion of the exhibition at Hull, Himid is forthright in her political reading of the Turner Prize decision: “It was a box that needed ticking.” As a black woman in her sixties, in the year that the prize lifted its age limit, she says: “I just happened to tick every box there is to tick.”

She is, however, embracing this new platform as an opportunity to engage with museums and galleries about developing their relationship with artists and audiences that might hitherto have felt less welcome.

“Museums imagine that they don’t know audiences, as if ‘audiences’ are this funny, grey, humming thing – audiences are just made up of people,” she says. “The way to get more audiences, different audiences in is to get different artists in. It’s really simple.”

Rather than gimmicks and “accessible” work, Himid sees a hunger for complex and challenging art. “Audiences don’t go to football matches to see the thing just played by the rules – they go because they want it to be more exciting, more complicated, more of a challenge than it was last time,” she says.

“You want exhibitions to be rigorous and difficult.”

An early interest in the political street theatre of the French and Italian avant-garde led Himid to study first as a set designer. She will revisit this theatrical sensibility in her upcoming projects, installing pulley-operated banners at Baltic and “giving audiences more agency, turning these showing spaces into performance spaces”.

Before walking back to the station I protest, vigorously, once more for her to regard her Turner Prize as acknowledgment of the power of her work. She says no artist would: the process of creation is always the act of struggling “with something that isn’t working”. Protesting about the context of the award, she says was “not so much doing myself down as understanding the political position we were in”.

She laughs, I think, at her own protestations: “What the hell does it matter? I won it.”

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