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Lubaina Himid: All the World’s a Stage

An overdue retrospective at Tate Modern, London focuses on the artist’s preoccupation with theatre but fails to enliven her previous triumphs.

During a talk held on the occasion of her 2017 exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, Lubaina Himid reflected on her experiences at art school in the 1970s. Describing herself as ‘unspeakably ambitious’, she had wanted to be an artist ‘from very early on, who changed things’. Believing theatre to be a more successful means of realizing politically driven ideas in the presence of an audience, Himid went on to study theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art, graduating in 1976. By the beginning of the next decade, she had repositioned herself as a painter, but continued to draw on her set-design training and her belief in theatre.

Taking Himid’s preoccupation with theatre as its premise, the artist’s current exhibition at Tate Modern is the most extensive presentation of her work to date and an overdue retrospective for the 67 year old, who was the oldest artist and first Black woman to win the Turner Prize in 2017. Envisaged as an exhibition that unfolds across several ‘scenes’, the show places the visitor at the centre of this so-called stage, which warrants active participation – or, at least, that’s the intention. To underline this point, the booklet accompanying the show opens with ‘Audiences as Performers’. Himid’s companion text functions as a to-do list for viewers as they traverse the exhibition. (What would I do in this situation? What difference can I make?) The questions continue, written out in paint across the walls and embroidered on flags that hang above. Here is an exhibition that is staged around questions, quite literally. Himid’s ideas about the possibilities of art – of what it might achieve – appear to stretch far.

The artist’s painted and sewn statements point to prevailing themes in her practice, which largely centre around personal and collective attempts at belonging. Himid has never been concerned with reiterating trauma, though she addresses the legacies of slavery as part of her underlying objective to give visibility to the African diaspora. In an interview with The Observer in 2017, the artist likened her work to a handbook, thinking of her practice as ‘a sort of car manual – to deal with the ghosts of what has happened’. The works at Tate that most strongly evoke Himid’s own story are the most tangible in this respect: portrayals of female companionship (Ankledeep, 1991) or architectural abstractions in which pattern is the most dominant force (Window Box/Rough Sea, 1998) – the latter motif a reference to her textile-designer mother.

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