Lubaina Himid claims “she is not a painter”. Instead she gives herself the title of ‘political strategist’. And whilst she does frequently use paint, it is hard to disagree with her. Her exhibit, Invisible Strategies exists across the boundaries of medium, combining painting and sculpture, simplicity and complexity. It also exists in two spaces politically, at once being accusatory and healing. There are multiple journeys here: the journey home, the journey of slavery, and in many respects, due to the constant awareness of the past, the journey of time. One of the recurring themes is the sense of appropriation or theft of art and culture: in one room, ‘In Mr Salts Collection’, depicts four crudely painted pots clearly of African origin, each with a number beside them. The painted pots, suggested to be works of art in themselves, have been consumed by a ‘white man’s’ ownership, removing any history or context, emphasised by them being given ambiguous numbers. In another room Himid seems to fight back, with a vast display of European ceramics that she has painted on with images of black men and women, and particularly uncomfortable slave-trade related imagery.
The sculptural ‘Bone in the China: Success to the Africa Trade’ sees a European classical-column transmuted into a bleached white bone. Around it are phrases mourning the lack of narrative given to black heritage in art institutions. The column perhaps meant to represent these museums, which Himid once called “charnel houses full of stolen goods, where the treasures of Black heritage and creativity are hoarded”. Surrounding ‘Bone in the China’ are large works, depicting an equally large variety of black characters in often bizarre scenes: Himid’s training as a theatrical set designer showing through the use of medium and size. The diptych ‘Le Roduer’ takes its name from a slave ship, on which occurred mass murder—yet the images are of reflective spaces, therapist coaches and open windows. ‘Freedom and Change’ appropriates Picasso’s 1922 ‘Two Women Running on the Beach’, with black women subverting the white tradition. These women are booed by white men in the bottom corner of the installation.
Perhaps the largest series in the exhibit is ‘Negative Positives’, a collection of 20 or so Guardian newspaper pages that feature stories depicting people of colour. On each page these articles are left untouched, still very much readable. The rest of the page, which has not been dedicate to such articles, is painted over in blocks of colour and pattern. Himid claims it is an attempt “to reclaim the portrait of the person [and] restore the balance”—presumably the person featured in the articles. The intended effect, being political, is obvious but I question how far it achieves its aims. The eye is immediately drawn to the colourful edited sections, instead of the articles and ‘portraits’ Himid is attempting to elevate. Even when illegible, the ‘white’ stories and advertisements still dominate the pages that are presented to us. The theory behind the practice is flawed also: a questionable endeavour to show, in an exhibit highlighting the erasure of people, depictions of them being presented in the mass media. The news stories and celebrities shown are all ones most will immediately recognise. All she seems to be doing is highlighting an already existing representation.
There is success however, with covers of the Guardian’s ‘Weekend’ magazine being opened out so the back page (in this case always an advertisement) is next to a full page portrait of women of colour who have featured on the covers. The juxtaposition of the two makes the commercialised adverts appear comically tasteless in view of the beauty of the women featured on the opposite leaf. I can’t help but feel sorry for the innocent advertisers and journalists whose work, having been displayed in these ways or painted over, has been made unfairly (and perhaps accidentally) into symbols of white colonialist oppression.
In a room by itself is the diptych ‘ZanzibarSea: Wave Goodbye Say Hello’. It comes as a result of Himid returning to her Zanzibar birthplace, after growing up in the UK. It is aesthetically vastly different to the rest of the exhibit. It does not seem to have a clear agenda either, being intensely personal. It is peaceful. Paint bleeds naturally underneath geometrical patterns, which themselves are drawn by hand, without ruler. There is a ubiquitous lack of form and edge, even though it is occasionally suggested. This creates the sense of ocean, of freedom. The isolation of this painting in its own room seems to be a purposeful creation of a healing space, as well as using the space to amplify the distance and separation that exists between Himid and her birthplace. There is much to see in this exhibit, a complex collection of varied subtly, emotion and medium, which in itself is a testament to the creativity and complexity of the black voices Himid seeks to un-erase.
Invisible Strategies continues until 30 April at Modern Art Oxford.