Lubaina Himid Explores Nuances of Black British Identity

The audience member is in the paintings… the experience should be similar to entering a room and deciding what you’re going to do, how you will react and interact. — Lubaina Himid for Tate Modern

Humans strive for a sense of belonging and a place they can call home. For many marginalized communities, this statement rings particularly true. Throughout history, these communities have been unheard and unseen in most museum depictions of “history,” leaving people forced to find a space within their own communities to call home.

British artist Lubaina Himid takes her creative depictions of visual representations of Black stories – forced to the background for far too long – into the spotlight to redefine these crucial narratives.

Lubaina’s most recent self-titled exhibition – on view at the Tate Modern in London until July 3, 2022 – highlights her most famous work (including some of her most recent work). In 2017, she was awarded the Turner Prize, an honor noting the recent achievements of a British artist, whether globally or in the UK. Lubaina is the first Black woman to receive the award as well as the oldest (receiving the award at age 63).

During the 1980s, Lubaina became an instrumental figure for the British Black Arts Movement because of her work commenting on Britain’s colonial history and how it has influenced a generation of Black British individuals to view themselves as British. Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool (2010) is one particular piece that comments on the ongoing and essential contribution that people of African descent have had on the city of Liverpool.

Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool features 30 hand-painted Victorian ceramic jelly moulds and 14 prints. The initial inspiration for the piece was an imagined architectural competition that was supposed to design public statues for the city of Liverpool to commemorate the lives of African individuals who made Liverpool a hub for culture and wealth. To go along with the concept that the piece was an architectural competition, Lubaina announced that she obtained top artists from African countries to participate. However, she was the sole creator of the works.

The usage of jelly moulds (or Jell-O molds as they are known in the US) was intentional and based on the relationship between the consumption of sugar, the transatlantic slave trade, and the city of Liverpool. According to National Museums Liverpool, “​​raw sugar was produced by enslaved Africans on the plantations of the Caribbean and sent back to Liverpool to be refined into the high-quality expensive sugar sold in Europe.” Ultimately, the moulds were used to shape and properly store the sugar to eventually be sold.

The moulds are strategically placed on the table that presents them to viewers with small trees lined in between each mould to emphasize how these monuments can be integrated within the community. This can also be seen in how the moulds were displayed in real places throughout Liverpool such as museums and shop windows, highlighting how imagining a city where influential individuals of African descent are commemorated isn’t that hard to emulate.

Another piece showcased in the exhibition that accentuates Lubaina’s talent to illustrate Black individuals’ complex existence within the British empire is Freedom and Change (1984). Freedom and Change is a large-scale installation that comments on the entanglement of Black identity and joy in a society where happiness is frowned upon. It depicts two Black women dressed in colorful printed dresses joining hands in glee as they walk a pack of dogs.

It is important to note that two other figures outside of the central image depict two white men with facial expressions that express dissatisfaction with how these women are behaving. This detail contributes to how societal norms created through a white hetero-normative gaze portray Black women’s joy as something that has no place in society.

Lubaina thought it was time to appropriately represent Black identity through her eyes and decided to take inspiration for this piece from Pablo Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922). This is particularly important due to Picasso’s history of cultural appropriation in his work known as “primitivism,” which is an aesthetic that works to depict non-European individuals as primitive. In response to this, Lubaina celebrates African culture and women by depicting them as fully developed women and not objects for the male gaze.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Lubaina discusses the significance of having an exhibition at the Tate Modern (a world-renowned art gallery), and the importance of highlighting her in a way that the audience will engage with.

“I’m a great believer in audiences. I’m trying to make this show so that the audience member believes they’re the most important person in the room,” said Lubaina.

Lubaina’s training in theatre design comes to the forefront in this exhibition and is an evident driving force throughout. She sees the exhibition viewers as audience members who come to see a story unfold. Thanks to her mother’s career as a textile designer, Humid takes inspiration and pays homage to her mother’s legacy through work that seamlessly illustrates the vibrancy of the African diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Lubaina’s unique usage of a variety of materials in her work has made her one of the most influential Black artists in the United Kingdom today. A critical driving force in her work is to compel the audience to look at their surroundings through a different lens.

Lubaina further stated in The Guardian interview, “it’s not easy to make a painting, it’s actually very difficult. But it is possible to change something about yourself or about your surroundings, or about the world. I want people to think: ‘If she can do it, then it must be possible for me to do it, too.'”

© Jessica Bond (1/19/2022) Special for FF2 Media.



Learn more about Lubaina Himid and the Tate Modern exhibition here.

Click here for Lubaina Himid’s Wikipedia page.

To read The Guardian interview, click here.


Featured Photo: Lubaina Himid exhibit at the Tate Modern.

End Photo: Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool by Lubaina Himid. (For scale, note the size of the woman on the far left.)

Photos courtesy of Jess Bond, taken at the Tate Modern exhibition in the United Kingdom. Authorized for responsible use as long as this URL appears in the post.

Tags: British artists, Jess Bond, Lubaina Himid, Tate Modern, Visual Arts

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Jess joined FF2 Media as a 2020 graduate of Temple University's journalism program. She has a passion for the arts and using writing as a tool to spread awareness on social issues, independent and small artists. She is a 2021-2022 Fulbright recipient to the University of Sussex, getting her MA in Media and Cultural Studies. She hopes to become an international journalist focusing on local communities and showing the beauty within them.
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