Lubaina Himid exhibition: Hard Times
So, if an artist, who lives Preston and teaches at the same uni, goes on to win the Turner prize I think one is bound to see their exhibition at the local Harris Museum. I had a quick look around but couldn't make much of it. Luckily I spotted to handout and this made the pieces really come to life.
The leaflet's introduction mentions that Lubaina focuses artistically and professionally on "reclaiming of individual identities lost in historical or political generalisations". This resonates quite deeply with me as questions of identity is a major driving force in my work. I also find that trying to pinpoint identities via a historical or political lens may help explain some elements of identity but most often it provides too much generalisation which leads to oversimplification and sometimes even erroneous assumptions about somebody's identity. Identity is a much more complicated and complex construct which links to the notion of the 'I', i.e. of an individual and not generalised notion of where an individual fits into identity assigned to a generalised group who has been assigned a collectively binding identity through historical or political events.
Looking at identity within a historical and political context may help to understand elements of an individual's identity but to get a more accurate and rounded picture one has to be aware of each person's intersectionality and allow for an anti-essentialist approach. Term 'intersectionality' was first coined by socio-legal scholar Kimberly Williams Crenshaw in 1989 when looking at the experiences of marginalised women an in the US, especially African-American women. She says that the experiences of a woman is often determined by her intersectionality, i.e. an experience that reflects her individual position where her experiences are determined by the intersection of her own ethnicity, class, gender, geography, etc.
With increased global mobility this intersectionality grows in cultural diversity. My own background and experiences form my own 'intersectionality' and may reflect many people's experience of cultural hybridity. I'm a white middle-class university educated German whose first language was English and first passport South African who lives in England but also has strong ancestral and cultural ties to Sweden. My ceramics in which I combine references from different cultural traditions are a way to create cultural hybrids and explore cultural identities via the application of patterns and traditional pottery glazes borrowed from different cultures and combining them into new hybrids. In a way I give these figures, in particular, their own intertextual identity.
Anyway, back to the exhibition by Lubaina Himid. The first piece that you see is A Fashionable Marriage, 1986, which a reworking of Hogarth's painting Marriage a la Mode, 1743. Lubaina's version is a critique both of the politics of the time and the art world, especially the role of the female black artist within it. It was made at the height of Thatcherism depicting both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and has strong resonance with the current political landscape. Lubaina's choice, who trained as a theatre set designer, for this piece of work is to make a tableaux of cardboard cut-outs, similar to the ones used on a theatre stage. I find this very quite poignant. It's as if the actors, in this case the politicians, have been relegated to stage dressing, the real politics are made elsewhere off stage. On a much more personal level this work resonates with me as my father worked all his life as a set designer for theatres, in which I spent some time when I was young behind the scenes and the workshops.
And how is this relevant to me and my art as a ceramic artist? Beside the political connotations about race, economy, politics and the art world it shows me that something that, had I seen it in 1986 may have seemed as polemical, has gained in depth over the years. Lubaina's work is colourful, vibrant, playful, working on different scale of sizes and different media. She has found and developed her own artistic vocabulary to express what is important to her even if, at the time, it was considered unfashionable and only recently has gained full recognition. In a way, it is her bravery to make statements about issues that are important to her personally that I admire. I could take this away with me and not play it so safe.
Feast Wagons, 2016 appealed to me for various reasons. For one it is relevant and as it addresses the high level of displaced people who are refugees. The exhibition visitors are encouraged to rearrange the handcarts "to create new relationships between them". The painted animals on the carts are intentionally "frightening creatures, a reminder of how the 'other' is often thought of as dangerous." All of these animal are migratory and as such reflect the issues of belonging of migratory people. So, this again addressing the issue of identity; of one's own perception and that of oneself through others.
Bone in the China: Success too the Africa Trade, 1985 was a commission and exhibited in Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent. The latter part of the title is take from a punchbowl exhibited there but made in Liverpool, UK city most closely linked to the black slave trade. This work in a way depicts that the success of the British empire is built on the deaths of many black people through slavery and is an attempt to point out the missing presence of black voices, stories and history of black heroines and heroes.
Even though this piece of work touches on so many issues that I've been interested in it somehow doesn't appeal to me. Not sure why?
The piece that appealed to me aesthetically from the very beginning was Inside the Invisible, 2002, which consists of a long row of 32 little canvasses (I have photo edited them to make up a block of 15.). Each canvas depicts a colourful pattern and has a little paper tag. I liked the small scale of each canvas and her use of pattern and colours. Initially they seem very bright and cheerful. However, this is quite a contrast from their context. Lubaina did them during a residency in Bergen, Norway at a former leprosy hospital, which was in operation until 1946. Each canvas represents a memory or an item or a story which she imagines the inmates have brought with them from their former life into the hospital. Each canvas has a little luggage label attached and on it is a handwritten statement, both in English and Norwegian, for example "I made flatbread in this pan." (middle row, 3rd from left), "A special hook I used to tie a certain knot." (top row, 2nd from left) or "These boots are old and worn now." (bottom row, 2nd from left).
This is another example where Lubaina centres her work on a group of marginalised, even ostracised, people while stressing their individuality, to quote from Lubaina's website "I wanted to make a series of works that might give these people a voice. They were individuals, real, idiosyncratic, sexual, thinking people. They had memories, hopes, families. In the same way that slaves were more than slaves, lepers are more than just people with bits of their bodies missing through disease." By giving the leprosy patients an individual voice, which links them to a past before their stay in the hospital, it individualises them instead of being defined just by their disease. It changes our and their own perception of their identity. Of course, this is quite clever as these aren't really quotes from the actual patients but are reimagined by Lubaina. The actual thoughts of the individual patients will always remain hidden from us. In a way this is also reflected in the way Lubaina uses the patterns. Each memory is a small and colourful abstracted representation of the memory or object the patient is referring to in the label. Sometimes there is a clear link between pattern and text but often it isn't clear. This is done intentionally. "Someone who did not see the object, however hard she looked, decided that the owner of the pattern/object did not want her to look into this private memory, it therefore remained hidden." Allowing the meanings of patterns to remain obscure has a strong appeal to me. By stronger abstraction and loss of their representational qualities their grow in aesthetic value, at least in my opinion.
Based on the above work the Harris was running a workshop that day which my daughter and I took part in. We were encouraged to think about something that we would want to take with us should we have to go into a hospital without hope of ever coming out again. We were then asked to make some sort of representation on the cover or on the inside of a notebook. I used parts of a photocopy of an African wax print textile and extended them with my own pattern doodles. For me that represented a notebook and pens to draw and make patterns with which I would take with me into the hospital.
Visiting this little exhibition turned out to be a thought provoking and fun afternoon. I managed to network with the two staff running the workshop, whose emails I now have to invite them to our MA exhibition in October. It even made me think about how I could use the photocopies of patterns as part of my pattern making process on clay. I would like to be able to maybe print (screen print) photocopied patterns onto my pieces which I would use as a starting point to respond to with my own hand drawn patterns.