LONDON — Around the halfway point of Lubaina Himid’s current solo exhibition at Tate Modern is a tapestry called “Freedom and Change”(1984). Two Black women run wildly across a pink backdrop. The women, who wear blue and black dresses composed of small strips of fabric, are being pulled by four teeth-baring black dogs, cut out of cardboard. Behind them, the heads of two bald white men, made of wood, emerge from the ground. One of them sticks out his tongue at the women, who run on obliviously.
The work is a reimagining of Picasso’s “Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race)” (1922), which was used as the stage curtain in the 1924 Ballets Russes production Le Train Bleu. Himid’s recreation crystallizes many of the elements that have come to define her practice: her love of bright colors and eclectic materials, her engagement with the performing arts, her reinterpretations of paintings from art history, and her insertion of Black figures into them. Picasso and other European Modernists borrowed liberally from African art, and in this work Himid borrows back. She takes Picasso’s running women and turns them into allegories for freedom and change.
Himid was born in 1954 in Zanzibar, Tanzania, to a Black African father and white English mother. When she was only four months old, her father died unexpectedly and her mother brought her to England. Perhaps inspired by her mother’s work as a textile designer, in the mid-1970s Himid completed a degree in theater design in London. In the 1980s she became a key figure in the British Black Arts movement, which looked to feminist and anti-racist theory to comment on the politics of representation. After four decades of art-making and exhibiting, in 2017 she won the Turner Prize — the first woman of color ever to win it. A major solo exhibition was long overdue.
For an artist at this stage of her career, a retrospective would seem logical. Himid’s current exhibition at Tate Modern, however, upends the very concept of a retrospective, and its (often plodding) chronology. Here, everything happens at once. Works from the early 1980s hang alongside pieces made in the last year. Some artworks come off the walls and into the gallery space; others are suspended from the ceiling. In each room a sound piece plays, created by Himid and her collaborator, artist Magda Stawarska-Beavan. Throughout, handwritten questions appear: What are monuments for? What does love sound like? What is the strategy?
The exhibition is a conversation, a rhetorical question, an experiment. Like opera, from which it draws its inspiration, it aims to be “a total work of art.” Because of its synchronic nature, it would be wrong to give any kind of blow-by-blow account of it. Instead, it conjures: the sea, block colors, John Coltrane, pairs of women, pairs of men, fabric, memory, blue, William Hogarth, maps, grief, lemons and limes, wood, humor, indeterminate settings, tools, patterns, hands, men in drawers, sound, love, jello molds.
Other than a brief introductory text and the handwritten questions, there is no wall text in the exhibition. It feels unmooring to experience art with no anchoring words, and at times I wished that the excellent analysis contained in the guide and catalogue was reproduced on the museum walls. Perhaps this is the artist’s challenge to visitors, though — don’t rely on texts, just look and listen.
Himid is keenly aware of the potency of language: its ability to shape world views and reinforce prejudices. In 2007 she began cutting out every image of a Black person she came across in The Guardian, noting “this extraordinary habit of placing negative text, about something else entirely, next to images of black people … juxtapositions that are always to do with either violence, prisons or theft.” She turned these newspaper clippings into artworks, painting over the text with patterns, images, and significant words from the newspaper spreads. In 2018, she became The Guardian’s first ever artist-in-residence, continuing her analysis and holding a series of conversations with staff.
Some journalists at the newspaper clearly did not learn very much from the experience. In his review of Himid’s current exhibition, the art critic Jonathan Jones wrote (using violent metaphors): “After a while, you want an explosion. I wanted a video screaming at me, a performer slapping my face. This is all too easy and too polite.” By contrast, back in 1986, in her Time Out review of Himid’s first ever solo exhibition, the critic Sarah Kent complained: “Lubaina spits her rage and sprays her bullets too widely. In denouncing absolutely everyone except the Black artist she paints her own halo rather too golden.”
Too political and not political enough. Too violent and rage-filled; too easy and polite. What these very divergent criticisms in fact show is Himid’s greatest talent as an artist: that her works can never totally be pinned down, that they refuse to be fully understood. Her works somehow manage to be both deeply passionate and coolly restrained, sharply political and quietly lyrical. As with any great artist, countless exhibitions could be staged on Himid’s work. This one captures her restless spirit of experimentation. Not everyone will like it. But I think that proves how daring it is.
Lubaina Himid continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through July 3. The exhibition was curated by Michael Wellen and Amrita Dhallu.