I became familiar with Lubaina Himid’s work thanks to the Online Art Exchange, which I take part in every week at work. Basically, museums pick an artwork from another museum off the Art UK website based on a theme that changes weekly and tweet about it, and one week I stumbled upon a painting from Himid’s Le Rodeur series, inspired by the grim story of Le Rodeur, a French slave ship. Nearly everyone went blind in the middle of the voyage (possibly due to severe conjunctivitis), and 36 (or 39, accounts vary) enslaved people were thrown overboard, allegedly to preserve water. Most disturbingly, the captain was subsequently given a second commission to transport slaves, because of the “great job” he did on the first trip. Himid’s paintings show Black people in strange “out of time” nautical settings, to portray the confusion the enslaved people on the voyage would have felt as they were chained in terrible conditions and went blind one after another. Needless to say, her painting became my selection for the week, and I have kept an eye out for her work ever since, so I was definitely intrigued by this exhibition at the Tate Modern.
Intrigued, but not exactly excited, because the description sounded rather pretentious. The term “theatrical exhibition” is ordinarily enough to send me running for the hills, but since Himid genuinely started her career as a theatre designer, that description wasn’t just mere pretentiousness on the part of the Tate. And I did like the Himid paintings I was familiar with, so I thought I’d give it a go, especially because it was the last week for Anicka Yi’s creepy squid robot things in the Turbine Hall, which I also wanted to see. Tickets for Lubaina Himid are £16 or £8 with Art Pass, and it runs until July.
The entire exhibition is inspired by the experience of Black people throughout history, particularly during the years of the British slave trade, and it got off to a good start with Metal Handkerchiefs, nine paintings showing Himid’s version of health and safety guidelines, and Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool, which were a series of ceramic jelly moulds about the relationship between sugar production, slavery, and the development of British cities, which is a really interesting topic, and definitely something on which I would have appreciated more signage. However, if I was looking for decent interpretation, things would only go downhill from here.
The next gallery simply contained a sound piece where people (maybe Himid herself?) said the word “blue” over and over again in different languages, and these art pieces(?) on the wall that looked to be made out of long pieces of cardboard. You can see me looking through the exhibition guide trying to make sense of it all, but it frankly wasn’t much help.
The gallery after this was a bit better. It was a series of paintings Himid did in the 1990s about women planning strategies for survival. This was also influenced by the experiences of the people forced aboard slave ships, and was the result of Himid speculating how someone would have survived had they made it to the other side of the Atlantic, in an entirely new environment, with everything they’d ever known ripped away from them.
Next to come was what was definitely my favourite piece of the exhibition, Himid’s reimagining of Hogarth’s Marriage-A-la-Mode, The Toilette. These often hilarious wooden cutouts were a parody of the art world, showing the pretentious art dealers to one side, a Black female artist in the middle, the politics of the 1980s (appropriately) to the right, including Thatcher and the National Front, and a young Black girl observing everything and encouraging the artist to stand up for herself and stop compromising in her work.
To return to the ship theme, the other side of the room had sound effects meant to recall the creaking in the hold of a ship (this was a more successful installation than the “blue” thing), some pieces of wood arranged in a wave formation, and a cart painted with various fish. There was a lot of unused space here, but I guess that was all part of the “theatre”.
The final large room of the exhibition contained a few pieces from the aforementioned Le Rodeur series, some of her Men in Drawers series (literally just paintings of Black men in drawers, as in, drawers from a dresser, not drawers as in underwear), and more carts painted with fairly disgusting looking sea creatures and bugs (I mean, her paintings were good, but the creatures themselves were disgusting).
To close the exhibition, the corridor leading to the exit had a final sound piece (this sounded OK too – it was meant to be Himid telling the life stories of 100 African servants, but we did not stick around long enough to hear much of it) and some structure that contained benches under a weird closed off grid. I genuinely wouldn’t have known whether it was an installation or a construction zone had there not been a label next to it, and the label simply had the name of the work, so no real help there (I’ve chosen to show you lemon man instead of the weird bench-thing, because I like it a lot better). There were also some flags inspired by East African Kanga fabrics hanging up, which were quite cool.
I really liked many of the pieces in this exhibition, and I think all of Himid’s concepts had the potential to be fascinating, but unfortunately, the execution didn’t always live up to the premise. The soundscape room with the cardboard on the walls was particularly bad. Most of the rest of the exhibition was better than this, but there was still a lot of under-utilised space, and the price was very high for something we walked through in under twenty minutes. I think this was all due to the lack of interpretation. Big, important topics like this require the viewer to have both a sense of history and an understanding of how these issues are still relevant to the present day, and this just wasn’t here to any significant extent, save for a handful of quotes from Himid in the tiny exhibition guide. Interpretation would have made all the difference here, and bumped up the score quite substantially. 2.5/5 as it is.
Before leaving, we went down to see Anicka Yi’s squid robot things, which were neat, but very freaky. I’m not keen on anything tentacle-y, and the robots got disconcertingly low over our heads. I was convinced one had locked on to me and he was going to swoop down and latch on to my brain if I didn’t keep moving. The Turbine Hall was allegedly scented with various scentscapes, like spices to make us think of the Black Death (don’t ask me what that has to do with squid) but I couldn’t really smell anything through my mask, even though my sense of smell is usually really good regardless. I enjoyed the creepiness in the confines of the Tate Modern, but if I ever see one of those robots squidding down the street at me, I’m running for my life.