A key figure in the Black Arts Movement, Himid first came to prominence in the 1980s when she began organising exhibitions of work by her peers, who were under-represented in the contemporary art scene. Her diverse approach disrupts preconceptions of the world by introducing historical and contemporary stories of racial bias and acts of violence inflicted upon oppressed communities.
Himid is best known as a painter, and Warp and Weft is comprised of three bodies of work in which the artist adopts the mantel of the History painter to question its imperialist tradition. By reinserting black figures into this arena of power and prestige, Himid foregrounds the contribution of people of the African diaspora to Western culture and economy.
The exhibition’s title, Warp and Weft, refers to the process by which threads are held in tension on a frame or loom to create cloth. Himid chose the title for its reference to Colchester’s important position in the wool trade between the 13th and 16th centuries, and its complex history of race and migration that is reflected in the productive tensions of Himid’s work.
Naming the Money (2004) is the largest installation to make use of Himid’s signature ‘cut-outs’ — paintings made on freestanding, shaped boards that viewers can walk amongst. Like stage-flats, these works reflect Himid’s early training in theatrical set design. At Firstsite, 60 cut-outs represent African slaves in the royal courts of eighteenth century Europe. The work features a soundtrack which gives a voice to the figures, and shifts between their original African names and trades and the new names and professions imposed upon them in Europe.
A series of 84 small-scale paintings, Cotton.com (2002) derives from the defence of African slaves made by the workers of Lancashire’s cotton mills in the nineteenth century — a historic moment of solidarity between the British working class and their peers across the Atlantic. The enforced labour of cotton pickers on the American plantations underpinned the economic successes of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, a fact that became evident as the American Civil War led to cotton shortages, mill closures and mass unemployment. Despite the high personal cost, the workers’ unions in Lancaster passed a motion in support of Lincoln’s efforts to end slavery. An accompanying text reenacts this conversation between workers on two continents, an exchange dependent not upon language but rather pattern. Himid has said, ‘The point I am often exploring vis-à-vis the black experience is that of being so very visible and different in the White Western everyday yet so invisible and disregarded in the cultural, historical, political or economic record or history.’
The exhibition also includes the ongoing series Negative Positives: The Guardian Archive (2007 - 2017) that continues Himid’s project of making visible. For ten years, Himid has painted over The Guardian newspaper to highlight the reoccurrence of negative news — in particular headlines about violent crime and drugs — that are frequently placed next to representations of successful black people. Himid explains: ‘The invented and borrowed patterns on each page are painted to highlight this strange and inappropriate use of people as signifiers and finally to vent my spleen. Every day in Britain even the “liberal” press is simultaneously visualising and making invisible black peoples’ lives.’ In this work and throughout the exhibition, Himid’s work reasserts the importance of marginalised histories and visual cultures, a project that is as critical in 2017 as in the 1980s.
Warp and Weft follows three critically acclaimed presentations of Himid’s work at contemporary art institutions in the UK: the simultaneous solo exhibitions Navigation Charts at Spike Island, Bristol (20 January – 26 March 2017), and Invisible Strategies at Modern Art Oxford (21 January – 30 April 2017), and The Place is Here, a group show at Nottingham Contemporary (4 February – 30 April 2017), which traced conversations between black artists, writers and thinkers in 1980s Britain. Following the exhibition at Firstsite, the touring programme will conclude at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, in Spring 2018.
Says Firstsite Director Sally Shaw: ‘In a year in which Firstsite is exploring issues of identity, and in a climate in which migration and immigration are particularly contentious, we are delighted to be staging this major presentation of Lubaina’s work.
Throughout her forty-year career, Lubaina has unflinchingly explored the history, impact and contribution of migration in western culture, in particular that of the experience of black people in the United Kingdom. The work that has been brought together for this show, all of which was produced in the last fifteen years, is as beautiful as it is thought-provoking, and is an insight into a significant and influential artist.’
Praise for Lubaina Himid’s 2017 exhibitions:
“A trio of UK shows shines a light on the under-appreciated hero of black British art.” Louisa Buck, The Telegraph
[The exhibition] “proves what a highly original and complex artist she is”. Sarah Kent, The Arts Desk
“Born in Zanzibar and raised in Britain, Lubaina Himid makes work about everything from slavery to Thatcher to the cotton trade. Now in her 60s, she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves.” Hettie Judah, The Guardian
“In putting historically marginalised figures at the centre of her work, [Himid] asserts and celebrates the black contribution to British cultural life.” Imelda Barnard, 1843
“Lubaina Himid’s riotous art tackles black history and representation right when it’s needed.” Lizzie Lloyd, ArtNet News
“The shows offer overdue recognition, for both Lubaina and her fellow artists, in a way that picks out recurring patterns and notions in the artist’s work and presents them boldly and unapologetically within the walls of each gallery.” Rebecca Fulleylove, It’s Nice That
Lubaina Himid's exhibition is supported by Arts Council England Strategic Touring fund.