As you step off the elevator into this much-anticipated solo show by Lubaina Himid, who won the 2017 Turner Prize, a medley of colorful flags wave as if in welcome. Yellow, blue, and oxblood red, they are emblazoned with messages such as there could be an endless ocean and why are you looking. These seven double-sided banners, which comprise the installation How Do You Spell Change, 2018, resemble kanga, a type of cloth worn especially by women in East Africa. Symbolizing fashion and freedom, kanga in the 1880s became identified with Swahili culture and burgeoning national pride. Yet kanga, as we know it, is a hybrid: Swahili, Arab, Indian, and European merchants all contributed to its motifs. Perhaps Himid’s use of such fabrics salute her own mixed heritage: Born in Zanzibar to an English mother and an African father, she moved to Britain as a baby. If her textiles conjure a triumphant parade, they also generate the spirit of a politically charged rally. She reminds us that Britain’s multiculturalism is connected to its maritime and colonial history.
“Himid’s work is a call to action,” declares Michael Wellen, cocurator (with Amrita Dhallu) of this sprawling show, the largest gathering of the artist’s work to date. Consisting of more than fifty artworks—paintings, “everyday objects,” poetic texts, and room-filling installations—the exhibition ranges from Himid’s activist years in the 1980s, when she was a member of the British Black Arts Movement, to her lockdown paintings, seen here for the first time. The stagy quality of Himid’s multimedia offerings gestures to her training in theater design. In one narrative painting, The Operating Table, 2019, three Black women deliberate over a heavily patterned map. The cartographic design looks remarkably like Risk, a strategy board game of diplomacy, conflict, and conquest. Are the females purposefully plotting their next moves? Or are they stuck playing by someone else’s rules?
The specter of Europe’s colonial past haunts Himid’s work. If the ghost appears at first in playful guise, it ends up making us shudder with shame. Le Rodeur: The Cabin, 2017, shows a Black musician and a baker in a luxuriously fitted room. The former beats a drum; the latter (dressed in pristine white) proffers an invisible master a pastel-pink cake. Behind them, a gray expanse of ocean can be glimpsed. It seems to toss merrily. In fact, the painting draws on an 1819 incident on the French slave ship Le Rodeur, where a contagious disease made passengers go blind. Thirty-six infected enslaved Africans were thrown overboard. Perspective is everything: The painting threatens to propel us into the frame or pitch protagonists out of it. This is precisely what seems to have happened with the installation Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool, 2010, a white table populated by candy-colored ceramic molds, as if they had tumbled out of Himid’s canvas. Rising from the sugar-white backdrop, the dainty structures conjure the fairy-floss fantasies of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. But this toothsome spectacle leaves a bitter aftertaste: The nineteenth-century sugar refiner Henry Tate, who lent the institution his name, may not have spun his fortune directly on the back of slavery (as has been erroneously proclaimed), but the sugar beet is steeped in oppression, coloring Tate’s legacy, no matter how we slice the pudding.
Elsewhere, too, the staged makes a sinister slide into the real. In Old Boat/New Money, 2019, thirty-two gray-blue wooden planks painted with cowrie shells are arranged on a white wall to simulate a giant wave. As we approach the planks, we hear the crashing of the sea, transporting us to sandy seashores. Our surf-kissed daydream does not last long, if we reflect that cowrie shells were once used as currency in exchange for African slaves. As waves of sound wash over us, we, too, are players in Himid’s drama: complicit and ultimately culpable.