In each installment of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-seen work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that artist putting the work in context. This week, we’re looking at a painting by the artist and curator Lubaina Himid, who is known for her vibrant figurative paintings that address questions of belonging, marginalized identity and Britain’s colonial past. In 2017, she won the Turner Prize, becoming the first nonwhite female artist to do so. A new solo exhibition of her work will open at the Tate Modern in London on Nov. 25.
Name: Lubaina Himid
Based in: Preston, England
Originally from: Zanzibar
Where and when did you make this work? I have a studio in my house, but I painted this piece at my second work space, in the city center. It’s part of a set of studios used by other artists who I’ve known for the last 20 years or so. At my home studio, I like to work in a more domestic way, getting out of bed in the morning and making work immediately before I’ve done anything else. But in recent years, I’ve wanted to work somewhere larger, on several big paintings at once. I only just finished this piece. I’m not going to put it in the Tate show because I deliberately completed it after the deadline for that. But, I suppose, the thing is I’m still excited by it.
Can you describe what is going on in the work? The figures are in a crowded place with people selling things all around them, and coming in and out of the frame. Something is happening just out of our view that I think is a little bit alarming. But the woman, even in the precarious position that she’s in, doesn’t put down her basket and start shouting. Instead, she’s gesturing to the man to just wait while she evaluates whatever it is. He is looking, too, and wants to act, to protest. His hand is sort of saying, “I don’t think this right” or “I want to say something,” but she’s inclined to see how the situation unfolds. And neither of them is wrong: Clearly, he has every right to want to join in and she, I think, is right to just assess things. I don’t know what’s just happened and I don’t know what’s going to happen next; I think I’ve left enough room, physically even, in the painting for you to get in it, so you can decide and you can change it by being there.
Politics enters one’s everyday life, and one’s everyday life enters politics and sometimes it’s hard to see or to judge a situation because you’re busy making decisions about your day. As I get older, knowing when to engage with a situation becomes much more difficult. When I was young, I would dive in and say exactly what I thought. It isn’t that I’ve become more tolerant — I’ve just become more open to negotiating. I want to weigh things up much more.
What inspired you to make it? It’s a continuation of a series of my paintings that depict men negotiating in some way. I’m also interested in how women have to plan their entire lives from around the age of 11. When your body begins to change, you need to start planning: You plan your months; you plan your year; you end up having to plan your life. Still, you don’t see women in European paintings in action very much. You certainly don’t see them dealing with anything beyond the domestic and so showing that is important to me. What inspired me, too, was a challenge I set for myself to see if I could bring too many elements into a painting and still make it work. Quite often with a painting, I’m trying to give myself a task that seems virtually impossible, and then trying to dig my way out of it.
What’s the work of art in any medium that changed your life? I suppose it has to be my installation “Naming the Money” (2004), which consisted of 100 painted wooden cutouts of human figures. I made it in my house, so for a year and a half I lived among those 100 people, talking to them, making each one’s story. And although it didn’t change my life in terms of, “Oh, suddenly people have discovered me as an artist,” it helped me understand the power in my own ability to decide to make something that seems virtually impossible. Now, the work belongs to the National Museums Liverpool, which loan it out, and it’s become a sort of signature piece. If I hadn’t made it, I would probably never have had the nerve to make other things. It shifted everything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.