Contemporary Art

Still talking: a review of Lubaina Himid’s “Invisible strategies”

Modern Art Oxford, 21 January- 30 April 2017

Lubaina Himid’s solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford brings her most contemporary projects to the public amongst a survey of work from the last thirty years. The new pieces, thematically placed, engage in the same issues of race, gender and cultural identity that have underscored the artist’s work since the 1980’s and appear no less pressing or relevant in their presentation today.

Most specifically Himid’s career has been engaged in the task of attaining visibility and acknowledgement for black women in the art world. A champion of the British Black Arts movement and a formative player in its second-wave generation of artists and curators, Himid was responsible for organizing such ground-breaking exhibitions as Thin Black Line (1986) and Black Woman Time Now (1983).

2017 perhaps marks a break-through moment in Himid’s more personal battle for recognition: Invisible strategies coincides with another Himid solo show at Spike Island, Bristol and the artist’s inclusion in the large group exhibition The place is here at Nottingham Contemporary which is a reassessment, and celebration, of how Black artists and thinkers have contributed to the British art scene over the past decades.

The first room of Invisible strategies is dominated by the monumental impact of Freedom and Change (1984) a re-invention of Picasso’s famous neoclassical image of Two women running on the beach (1922). Here two black women, clothed in colourful, mixed-media dresses, hands clasped together triumphantly, surge forward with an unstoppable force.  Bold and dynamic and bearing not only historical but mythic significance in their size and solidarity, these towering female figures set the political and exciting tone of the exhibition.

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On the neighbouring wall two large oil paintings The Exchange (2016) and The Lock (2016) denote the most recent developments in the artist’s representation of the black figure. These genre-scenes, or history paintings, depict simplified, geometric interiors populated by groups of bodies casually interacting and yet theatrically staged: frozen in posture and time. Wreathed in a peculiar and ambiguous symbolism, the meaning of these works is heightened by the knowledge that the series is named Le Rodeure after a nineteenth-century slave ship.

Beyond the room in either painting is a vision of the ocean lapping against the external wall. This high-level choppy water, engulfing the outside world, seems to pose a danger and a threat. Whilst the presence of the sea and the associated iconography of vessels and journey-making recurrent in Himid’s work no doubt makes reference to her own early-life experience of relocation from Zanzibar to England, it also resonates with a more collective and sinister memory: the Transatlantic slave trade. The artist confirms that the “narratives about/by people being taken forcibly from west-coast Africa to the coasts of America on trade ships to be later used as slaves” had a decided impact on her painting career and her formulation of an art-type closely related to black diaspora identity.

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Whilst the artist describes herself not as “a painter in the strictest sense” but rather “a political strategist who uses a visual language to encourage conversation, argument, change” the medium of paint remains central to her process, her weapon of choice. What is striking is the way that Himid has reclaimed the heroic expressiveness of paint and the grand-scale narrative figure for her own – snatched from the jaws of twentieth-century modernism which had positioned both as the product of male subjectivity. For Himid, in fact, paint had always belonged to women: “paint is ours, we have always used pigment and colour on surfaces. On the outside and inside of our homes and on our bodies, on fabric.”

The closeness of paint with feminine expression comes to the fore in the second, more intimate room of the exhibition. Here a recent range of works reveal the inspiration of the Kangas (the everyday cotton garments made and worn by women in East Africa) and which invoke its richness, texture, colour and pattern on paper. Some include the graphic texts of Swahili sayings or aphorisms devised by the Abolition and Civil Rights Movements. The Source of the tears has long run dry (2016) is powerful in its simplicity and energy, notably tinged by the emotions of anger and frustration. This is a frustration often voiced by Himid who states revenge as a natural response to cultural mourning. This revenge, however, is not borne of violence but through the act of insistence when it comes to black women making art: a refusal to fade away, the mantra: we are still here, we are still talking and we are still committed to change.

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Sharing the final room of the exhibition are two multi-piece projects undertaken by Himid in the last decade: Negative Positives (2007-ongoing) and Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (2007). Negative Positives displays a collection of archived material from The Guardian, specifically pages that reveal images of black actors, politicians, athletes and celebrities which are accompanied by some form of negative editorial or news story text. The project traces their perceptibly routine connection as symptomatic of implicit racial prejudice in the British press and the (mis)use of black bodies as signifiers.

Himid responds by painting over sections of the newspaper- normally beginning on the periphery and encroaching inward- with vibrant, geometric patterns and symbolic African imagery, attempting to highlight and reframe the contents shown. Viewed by the artist as a kind of visual research and at the same time an intervention, the project is an “attempt to reclaim the portrait of the person and restore the balance” in a visual media culture which both visualizes and renders silent black individuals.

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Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service follows with an equally poignant attempt at reclamation.  This large selection of English willow-pattern bone china has been overpainted with portraits of slaves, market scenes, caricatures of wealthy white traders and other images which attempt to map Lancaster’s historical entanglement with the slave trade (it was the fourth largest slaving port in the country). This piece was originally intended to furnish the city’s historic Judges Lodgings museum as part of a series of projects marking the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807).

As a product of extended research, this piece is seen by Himid as “an intervention, a mapping and an excavation. It is a fragile monument to an invisible engine…” This is about the conscious exposure of colonial histories and the literal superimposition of those voices and those narratives that were lost or hidden as its consequence. It is, like Negative Positives, an invitation for the viewer to re-see and transform objects already circulating in the world, to give them new and self-critical meaning. Most importantly, I think, these pieces serve to fuel the fire that keeps dialogue and discussion about uncomfortable truths alive, truths that would be easier but unforgivable to let “go out”.

Indeed, if anything is clear from the contemporary works that bring Invisible Strategies up to date with the world of today,  it is the message that our most vital conversations about identity, history and heritage are far from exhausted: there is still much to said and still much at stake in how these things continue to affect us in our day to day lives.

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© 2017, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

Damien Hirst: commodity and the readymade

“The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”, which is the extravagant title that Hirst gave to his shark in a tank of formaldehyde, has become one of the artist’s most notorious statements. Alongside other high-profile pieces such as Tracey Emin’s bed, the shark has become emblematic of the 90’s BritArt movement and its ethos.

The initial shock factor of the artwork, especially when seen in its original context at the 1992 Saatchi exhibition of Young British Artists, might have made it seem like a radical and exciting, if controversial, novelty. Conceptually however, as is usually the case, it was not without precedent. In employing a prefabricated object (in this case a shark) Hirst emerges at the tail-end of the readymade tradition in 20th century avant-garde art.

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Since Duchamp’s urinal first provoked outrage when he attempted to exhibit it in 1917, artists have been exploring the potential of the readymade object as a critical tool, pushing the boundaries of what we call “art”. We can think back to Minimalists such as Carl Andre with his piles of bricks stacked on gallery floors, to Pop Art in the 60’s with Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and rows of soup tins, even to Jeff Koon’s balloon animals and displays of household objects in the 80’s. For many decades artists have been asking the same question: what separates art objects from other objects in the world?

Hirst upholds the tradition of the readymade, but with one noticeable change. Where previously artists had used ordinary, commonplace, often industrially produced objects, Hirst uses the opposite – extraordinary objects, such as the shark. By substituting the likes of a cardboard box for the frightening, visceral melodrama of a 13ft long tiger shark in a glass tank, suspended as if it were still swimming, still alive and dangerous, Hirst has brought a new dimension to the avant-garde device of the readymade. That is to say, he has transformed it into a spectacle.

This is hardly surprising. For the YBA’s, who can be thought of as the first superstars of the art world, spectacle was everything. It was intrinsic to their image and concept. “Sensation” was the title of their 1997 group exhibition because this is what they caused; in the press and in the media, in the dusty citadels of arts institutions, in the casual-gallery-goer public who loved to hate them.

The spectacle is especially important to Hirst, it is the common denominator in all of his work. This spectacle is not something derived solely from the objects he chooses – although as we have seen with the shark, this is always part of it – but is generated from the aura of media celebrity which belongs to the artist himself, his artistic status which he has made into a brand.

Backed by advertising guru Saatchi, the YBA’s became experts at selling their art as a projection of themselves; a luxury commodity with a price-tag to match. It is this clever commodification process which makes Emin’s bed, not much more exciting than the one you woke up in this morning, worth £2.2 million. It is what makes Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull (which the artist himself played no part in making) dare to ask a price of £50 million.

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The much inflated value of these readymades, of what are essentially still just objects (albeit in the case of the jewelled skull, valuable ones) is symptomatic of what Marx described as the fetishization of commodity. Marx warned of losing the real value of human labour as a by-product of the estranged economic relations we experience within a capitalist consumer society. It is tempting to use Hirst’s skull to illustrate his point.

In regards to the shark, however, the spectacle is not quite as shallow or straight-forward. One of the elements that makes it an alluring and desirable object (or product) is the strange title Hirst has given it. A title which perhaps becomes the shark’s most evocative aspect. It is beautiful and poetic in its clumsiness: “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”.

The phrase is simple and chimes with the infallible truth, revealing in a second the folly that underscores the human condition: that we are born to die and can never come to terms with that fact. For me the title transforms the creature, no longer a fear-inspiring monster it becomes sad and forlorn. Isolated and remote and trapped there in death till the end of time (or at least until it rots away and has to be replaced, as in 2006, but the sentiment stands).

The theatrical cruelty of the object is no longer the shark as an agent of death, but that of death itself, of the promise of death. And as we look at the shark in this new light it becomes almost heart wrenching to behold, engendering that feeling of pathos which Hirst will later perfect with another of his formaldehyde projects: a cow and its calf in separate tanks and severed in half entitled “Mother and Child (Divided).”

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In these “Momento Mori” works we realize we are not just looking at animals in tanks but at ourselves, at our own mortality. The artist has shamelessly and brilliantly brought the nihilistic glamour and tragedy of death – as a timeless, universal and sublime truth – into his spectacle. In Hirst, it seems, anything and everything can become part of the commodity.

To Hirst’s staunchest critics he is merely a savvy player of the contemporary art game with no real or authentic talents to speak of. It is certainly true that he is a far cry from that romantic artist prototype – the inspired, misunderstood genius labouring his whole life for little reward – he is rather a businessman and an entrepreneur. But maybe we should stop to wonder if this is not just a natural consequence of our times, a reflection of the increasingly materialistic world artists must negotiate, a world which beckons its own kind of artistic genius. In this context that question which has hung around since the dawn of modernity, that question of “what is art”, has become even more problematic.

Whilst no one has held back on their criticism of Hirst over the last decades (he has been variously named a con-artist, a fraud, and just simply bad) this has done nothing but help bolster his exposure and consequentially add to spectacle of his personality and his art, cementing works like “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” into the history books of the future.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.