The life and work of Lubaina Himid RA

The Turner Prize-winning British artist and Royal Academician discusses teaching, politics, and her mum.

Installation view of 'Lubaina Himid – The Grab Test' at Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, on view 16 November 2019 – 23 February 2020 by Lubaina HimidRoyal Academy of Arts

Lubaina Himid first wanted to be 
a theatre designer. The artist trained in theatre design at Wimbledon Art School but discovered fairly early on that she wasn’t, in her words, "a theatre person". Partly she puts this down to finding it hard to work in a large team and also to what she describes as "the gap between what theatre actually is in Britain, and what I wanted it to do. I’m interested in the theatre of the chance encounter… I couldn’t ever get my head around the proscenium arch."

Don’t rule out a return to her stage roots, though: 
"I’m thinking about working with the art historian Griselda Pollock on something", she says, casually.

Naming the Money (2004) by Lubaina HimidRoyal Academy of Arts

Her mother was an artist
"My mother was what she and I call a jobbing textile designer. She didn’t float around in a kaftan, thinking up patterns in her studio; every day, she went to work at 9am, to a studio in London’s Regent Street where they made the designs for most of the dresses that you’d find in Marks & Spencer in the 1960s". As a result, Himid’s understanding of what it is to be an artist has always been distinctly non-romantic: "It wasn’t a pleasurable thing, it was a job."

Installation view of 'Lubaina Himid – The Grab Test' at Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, on view 16 November 2019 – 23 February 2020 by Lubaina HimidRoyal Academy of Arts

Pattern is a language
In the beginning, Himid avoided textiles "like the plague", not wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps. "I never wore pattern and I couldn’t understand how anyone could spend their entire life doing something so restrictive." However, as she got older, she began to understand "the levels of meaning that you could get out of pattern, and its potential for speaking to audiences, to get people to engage with images". She also began to see it as a means that women use to communicate with one another, when other possibilities are restricted.

Her recent exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum in the Netherlands (November 2019 – February 2020) featured lengths of highly patterned West African fabrics sewn together and over-painted with Himid’s own designs. These were wound around the pillars in the Vleeshal, the 17th-century meat market in the centre of Haarlem that now houses part of the museum.

Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (detail) (2007) by Lubaina HimidRoyal Academy of Arts

She is still learning from her students
Like many artists, Himid looked to teaching as a way of providing a stable income while making her own work. However, it was difficult to find a full-time position in London, so when she was offered an ‘exhibitions officer’ post at Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s ("it wasn’t called curating then"), she moved to the North-west, where she has lived ever since. As Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, where she has taught since 1990, her recent PhD students have included Zoé Whitley, who curated the British Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, while with her research fellow Christine Eyene, she runs the project Making Histories Visible, which explores the contribution of black visual art to international culture. Of her students, she remarks: "I can’t believe how I’ve managed, for 30 years, to speak to artists every single day. It’s incredible."

Le Rodeur: The Lock (2016) by Lubaina HimidRoyal Academy of Arts

Politics drives everything
Himid’s early installations used almost-life-sized cut-out figures arranged in various scenarios. A Fashionable Marriage (take a look) from 1986 updated William Hogarth’s satirical print series from c.1743 Marriage à-la-Mode (take a look) to Britain under Margaret Thatcher, skewering the pomp and prejudice of the political and cultural establishment. Himid was an early member of the British Black Arts Movement, curating exhibitions of fellow black and Asian women artists who were marginalised by mainstream arts organisations. Although more recent pieces – such as this painting from a beautiful series based on the story of a French slave ship – are less direct about their traumatic source material, "the politics of injustice and inequality are always threaded through".

Tenderness Only We Can Bear (2018) by Lubaina HimidRoyal Academy of Arts

She absolutely did not expect to win the Turner Prize in 2017
She had mixed feelings about being nominated in the first year that the under-50 age restriction was removed: "I understood that I would be the poster girl for old people, which was a bit of a drag". But after years of protesting against the invisibility of female artists of colour, Himid was determined to make the most of the attention. Numerous high-profile exhibitions have followed; at New York’s New Museum, for example, she opened her first solo US museum show in June 2019. This has pushed the work in new directions: "I’m trying to get further with the idea of audiences being able to feel like they are players in my shows – to make an experience, so you feel like you’ve been to a place, rather than seen an exhibition." A kind of theatre, then.

Fog is an Urban Experience (c.2007) by Will Alsop RARoyal Academy of Arts

Credits: Story

Text by Amy Sherlock.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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