2018-04-20 11:20:07
She Won the Turner Prize. Now She’s Using Her Clout to Help Others.

LONDON — “It doesn’t matter whether it’s in France, or Oxford, or Karlsruhe, Germany: I want galleries to acknowledge that all around them are artists,” the British painter Lubaina Himid said in a recent telephone interview. “The best artists don’t necessarily come from somewhere else.”

In 2017, 30 years into her exhibiting career, Ms. Himid won the Turner Prize, Britain’s pre-eminent award for contemporary art. As the first black woman to take the prize and, at age 63, the oldest winner, she brought more press attention to the event than it has received in years.

This spring, Ms. Himid has four shows opening around Europe, starting with a retrospective at the MRAC museum for contemporary art in Sérignan, France. Others will take place in Glasgow, Berlin and Gateshead, England. All were programmed before the prize was announced, but Ms. Himid is now using her enhanced clout to request that galleries showing her work reach out to black artists living and working nearby and include them in events like talks and debates that run with the exhibitions.

If curators say there are no black artists working in their region, as Ms. Himid said they often do, she provides them with names drawn from an extensive network she has built up over many years. Ms. Himid wants to bring black audiences into galleries and local artists of color to the attention of curators.

“The Turner Prize changed all sorts of things,” she said. “Now, if I say I want something, people try and do it for me, and that’s never happened to me in the whole of my life.”

The requests Ms. Himid now makes of the institutions showing her work are part of a long-running mission to make black histories available through archival research and to encourage arts institutions to value the work of women and people of color. Her personal archive laid the foundation for Making Histories Visible, a research project based at the University of Central Lancashire exploring the contribution of black visual art to the cultural landscape.

Whether painted on canvas, newspaper, dinnerware or the wooden panels of a piano, Ms. Himid’s work has an immediate, gripping appeal. Beyond her paintings’ alluring colors and engaging graphic qualities lie troubling questions: about the attitudes toward black creativity; about the stereotyping of minorities even in the liberal media; about British wealth derived from Caribbean sugar. And they set the scene for conversations about what art is shown by the world’s taste-making institutions, what art is overlooked, and why.

Ms. Himid has long championed the work of other artists. A leading figure in the British Black Art Movement of the 1980s, she organized important group exhibitions at public institutions in London.

The exhibition at Sérignan will present works from eight series Ms. Himid made since the ’80s: All are talking points connected to Europe’s colonial past and wealth derived from slavery. “Cotton.com,” a series of 85 painting from 2002, recalls an incident from the 1860s when mill workers in northern England refused to process cotton grown in the Confederate States. The patterned panels imagine coded communication between black slaves on American plantations and British textile workers.

As part of her participation in the forthcoming Berlin Biennale, Ms. Himid asked the organizers to translate into German texts by the African-American poet and activist Essex Hemphill, and by Maud Sulter, a British artist and writer of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage. In Sérignan, a region where more than half the voters chose Marine Le Pen from the far-right National Front in the second round of the 2017 French presidential elections, the gallery will host, at Ms. Himid’s request, a conversation between Françoise Vergès, an academic known for her work on the legacy of colonialism and slavery, and the French-Cameroonian curator Christine Eyene. (“It will be hard-hitting,” Ms. Himid said.)

Ms. Eyene, artistic director of the International Biennial of Casablanca, Morocco, said in an interview that public conversations like these were important, particularly in France, where it could be difficult to discuss issues of race and the country’s colonial legacy.

Ms. Eyene recalled that while she was studying art history at the Sorbonne in the 1990s, “There were no black professionals in museums. I knew very early that there was little chance for me to get a job in a museum.” She noted that she still sees a tendency in France to favor work by black artists from outside the country over the work of French artists of color. “In France, when institutions do an African art exhibition they will look for artists based on the continent, or perhaps in other countries,” she said. “They’re not interested in bridging the gap between the diaspora and the Africans from Africa.”

Two works on show in Sérignan refer to the French context of the exhibition. “Freedom and Change” (1984) borrows its composition from a 1922 work in the Picasso Museum in Paris — “Women Running on the Beach (The Race)” — a reference that in turn recalls Picasso’s own borrowings from African art that commenced in 1907 with the painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

“Naming The Money” (2004), a throng of 100 life-size standing figures, was inspired by portraits of black slave servants who were given as gifts to the king of France by the king of Spain. Each figure bore a sash stating their name and occupation in the court: lute player, dog handler, dancer and so forth. Lavishly dressed, they were the glamorous face of exploited black labor and exotic status symbols.

Gabi Ngcobo, the Berlin Biennale’s curator, said that it was important to look at Ms. Himid’s work in the global context of creative practices giving voice to shared history that remains hidden or untold: “It is here that black artists working in different parts of the world can find a space in which they are not marked by an otherness but rather self-determination.” This year the Biennale borrows its title from the Tina Turner anthem “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” a call for “love and compassion” that Ms. Ngcobo said was reflected in the determined but generous way Ms. Himid has worked “as an artist, curator and cultural activist: quietly, forcefully whilst reaching out to many.”