Turner Prize win places Wolverhampton at centre of art debate

She was a founding member of the British Black Arts Movement – which grew out of Wolverhampton in the 1980s. The ARTS FOUNDRY assesses reaction to the latest winner of the UK art scene’s most controversial prize…

 

When Professor Lubaina Himid won the Turner Prize, opinion was divided, as it often is.

Her supporters felt it had taken far too long for this much-lauded artist and academic to be recognised. Detractors were more concerned with the retrospective aspect of her work, claiming this alone should have taken her out of the running for the Prize.

In fact, had the rules not been changed to allow artists over 60 to enter, Himid, at 63, would not even have been eligible.

Lubaina Himid giving her acceptance speech at the Turner Prize 2017

 

A painter, writer and curator, Professor Himid has built an international reputation for her work on the art of the Black Diaspora.

In addition to her status as a key figure in the British Black Arts Movement, her curatorial work involves bringing hidden or neglected objects in museum collections to life, allowing artists to explore identity, invisibility, and history.

Recent exhibitions at Spike Island and Modern Art Oxford, and her archival work at Nottingham Contemporary have brought her work to new audiences and been met with widespread acclaim.

Her Turner Prize win comes not long after a revival of her 1986 cut-out installation A Fashionable Marriage, which, based on William Hogarth‘s Marriage A-la-Mode, blends commentary on international politics and British art.

Himid is both the oldest artist and the first woman of colour to win the Prize, praised for her focus on ‘difficult, painful issues.’

What is, perhaps, more difficult and painful is the continuing underrepresentation of minority groups in the art world.

For it to have taken Himid a whole lifetime to achieve acceptance is telling, according to Su Fahy, who as a principal lecturer at the Wolverhampton School of Art recently took a group of students to see an exhibition surveying the work of Himid and other key players providing commentary on the politics of the 1980s.

Nottingham Contemporary

 

The Place is Here brought together photography, film, paintings, sculpture and archives from a decade of unrest, featuring the work of more than 30 artists and collectives in an exploration of the emergence of the British Black Arts Movement.

Wolverhampton hosted the First National Black Art Convention in 1982, held at the then Wolverhampton Polytechnic and organised by the Blk Art Group.

The local Art Gallery holds important works in its collection by artists including Himid, Chris Ofili, Tam Joseph, Keith Piper, Claudette Johnson and Donald Rodney.

Much of the movement’s work sought to address racism and the ‘Othering’ that persists in the art world, and Fahy adds: ‘Himid and many other black artists put on their own shows because nobody else would.

‘She is a seminal artist of the movement – and she insists it is a movement rather than a collective –  setting the scene for black women artists, and working with black artists from Wolverhampton back in the eighties.

‘She is also an academic working very hard to explore the continuing impact of the British Black Arts Movement.’

Central themes include challenging accepted notions of beauty, interrogating the politics of the day, exploring collective history, and, perhaps most notably, expressing anger.

‘Some of their work was very raw, and male critics and commentators haven’t always responded well to the anger in Himid’s work,’ Fahy continues.

‘This was, and is, anger against the male patriarchy. The artists of the Black Arts Movement were also challenging the hegemony of the institution. They could remember Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. They felt they had something different to say.’

Next year sees the publication of a book exploring the concept of curatorial activism, by American curator and arts writer Maura Reilly who has long campaigned for better representation of minority groups in the art world.

The book will explore how curators can avoid the exclusion of artists currently not able to break through the closed ranks of the art world. Reilly defines curatorial activism as

‘a practice that commits itself to counter-hegemonic initiatives that give voice to those who have been historically silenced or omitted altogether—and, as such, focuses almost exclusively on work produced by women, artists of color, non-Euro-Americans, and/or queer artists.’

from Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, by Maura Reilly (out April 2018)

 

Himid herself praised the network of women behind her Turner Prize win, paying tribute to them in her acceptance speech: ‘I know dozens of strong, clever artists and curators, mostly women, and I talk to one or other of them every day. I love them dearly.’

The wake of the Turner announcement has involved criticism of Himid for not presenting ‘new’ work, in accordance with the Prize rules.

Fahy argues: ‘Her work is modern, in that it is revisting. Her work has always looked at a sense of place, and critiques the idea that people of colour can’t question a sense of place.

‘A central tenet of her work is Making Histories Visible, and she does this through the implicit and repeated challenge to conventions, to accepted norms. It is important for her as an artist to establish where her making, and her spirit of making, comes from.’

Fahy found the reactions of students interesting when she took them to see The Place is Here.

‘What was interesting was how they responded to themes, and the media students in particular were interested in the honesty of the reporting in her work.

‘Himid is trying to evoke, both through her art and her research, a criticality around exploring the impact of the Black Arts Movement.

‘In winning the Turner Prize, she is demonstrating the relevance of work with a cultural back story. It’s a hugely significant moment. In fact, the only thing I can compare it to is when Frank Bowling was made a Royal Academician. It was remarkable, and yet Frank essentially made his reputation in America, and, like other artists of the movement, is not sure he could have done it here.

‘It’s time Lubaina Himid was made an RA. For years she has broken through, and proved she is not an artist with only one story to tell. She is making whole histories visual, and visible.

‘People are saying she’s too angry, but perhaps that says more about her critics than it does about her.’

By Louise Palfreyman

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