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As Lubaina Himid prepares for a retrospective across three venues in England, she talks to Imelda Barnard about how black British art has evolved over the past three decades, and why there are still many political battles to fight

At the beginning of my career I was trying to place black people into historical events, to make the invisible more visible – in 1970s Britain you rarely saw black people on the television, or in newspapers. I wanted to make the point that black people have contributed to European cities – many were built on the money earned from the slave trade – and have influenced the cultural landscape. As northern European politics has evolved, so has my work: it’s become much more about African people not only being here, but being part of the place, making it a more vibrant and multilayered place to be. The history of why Africans are here is the history of why Europe was there.

APOLLO JANUARY 2017

You’re showing Freedom and Change [1984; Fig. 2], which subverts a Picasso painting, at Modern Art Oxford [21 January–30 April]. Your earlier work seems to deliberately challenge modern art and the depictions of black figures in art history… Yes, it does. With Freedom and Change I was making the point that Picasso, like many modernists, felt completely at ease, as artists do, appropriating from multiple African cultures. I felt quite at ease appropriating back again. When Picasso was working in Paris in the early 20th century, African art was admired as ethnographic art, but little attention was paid to what people might be doing in Africa at the time.

My work A Fashionable Marriage [1986] – which I’m showing in Nottingham – also subverts a Hogarth painting. If you look at Hogarth’s work – amazingly vulgar cartoons and extraordinary critiques of Britain in the 18th century – you can see the odd black person here and there, someone serving hot chocolate or playing with toys or begging. Both Picasso and Hogarth were appropriating and including the black body in their work; it gave me free rein to just take it back again.

You’ve described yourself in the past as a black artist and a feminist artist. What’s the relationship between the two identities? I am a black feminist; they are not separate.

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