ARTIST OF THE YEAR
APOLLO ARTIST OF THE YEAR 2017
‘The past year has been extraordinary but slightly unreal, a bit like being in someone else’s life,’ Lubaina Himid tells me. By any standards, the last 12 months represent a significant stage in the artist’s 35-year career: alongside two solo exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford and Spike Island in Bristol, Himid was included in ‘The Place is Here’, a survey of black British art at Nottingham Contemporary. And, at the age of 63, she has been nominated for the Turner Prize – the oldest artist ever shortlisted after the award relaxed its upper age limit. It’s a moment of national recognition that feels long overdue.
That Himid suddenly finds herself in the spotlight is especially poignant, not least because her own work has consistently fought against invisibility, particularly in an institutional context. Since the 1980s, in works that are daring, political, and skilful, she has called for due acknowledgement of the black presence in British life. Her work, she says, demonstrates ‘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’. Naming the Money (2004; Fig. 1), shown as part of ‘Navigation Charts’ at Spike Island, consists of 100 life-size cut-outs that represent African slaves at the royal courts of 18th-century Europe; each one is assigned a creative role, from artists and musicians to shoemakers. The installation evoked Bristol’s own history of wealth accumulated by the slave trade, but perhaps more potent was the work’s insistence that we walk among these hidden figures. ‘In a British setting, especially outside London and in an art gallery, it’s unusual to be in a space with 100 black people,’ Himid says.
Cotton.com (2002) similarly affirms the contribution to Western life from artists across the African diaspora. A series of 85 small canvases painted in abstract patterns refers to an act of solidarity between Lancashire mill workers and enslaved African workers during the American Civil War. It’s an assertion of the rarely acknowledged impact enforced labour across the Atlantic had on the UK during the Industrial Revolution. Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (2007), in which beautifully painted black servants and greedy landowners are overlaid on English porcelain, confronts Lancaster’s links with the slave trade. Himid can be understood as a history painter, and much of her work’s force lies in its demand that we fill in historical gaps. From early on, she tells me, ‘I was trying to place black people into historical events, to make the invisible more visible’. She came of age in Britain in the 1970s, a time when ‘you rarely saw black people on the television, or in newspapers’.
I’m struck that, for more than 25 years, Himid has lived and worked in Preston – far from the centre of the UK’s art scene. ‘It’s a funny place to live,’ she admits. Born in Zanzibar to an African father and Lancastrian mother, Himid found herself briefly in Blackpool, the hometown of her maternal grandmother, after her father died suddenly. She grew up in London
THE APOLLO AWARDS 2017 IN ASSOCIATION WITH
DECEMBER 2017 APOLLO
: Den to