In Review

Lubaina Himid at Tate Modern: a powerful but ‘neutralised’ retrospective

Retrospective exhibition confirms the Zanzibar-born artist as ‘an irrepressible witness to our times’

Lubaina Himid’s new show at the Tate is a “thunderously impressive” event that is “bursting with creativity”, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Born in 1954 in Zanzibar to an English mother and a Zanzibarian father who died soon after her birth, Himid grew up in England with a keen sense of her origins and the complicated historical context that engendered them.

From the 1980s, she carved a reputation as an “aesthetic activist”, developing a style that blended faux-naif figurative painting with dioramas that drew on her training as a set designer. In 2017, she became the first black woman to win the Turner Prize.

Throughout her career, her chief subjects have been “slavery, the crushing of black identity, the dark power of the sea”. This “powerful” retrospective brings together a broad selection of Himid’s work since the 1980s, tracing its evolution from angry agitprop to ever more subtle and imaginative modern art. It leaves you in no doubt that as an artist, she just keeps “getting better and better”.

This exhibition ought to be “a sure-fire hit”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. Himid, “a visionary of evergreen inventiveness”, has conceived of the event “as a kind of promenade theatre in which viewers participate”. There are “walk-through installations, a bus shelter complete with bike racks, painted wooden carts like props from a medieval mystery cycle and – most radically for an art show – a continuous soundtrack, shifting from torch song to classical music and spoken word”.

Yet overall, it fails to do justice to Himid’s talents. Old Boat/New Money (2019), an installation of “upended spars” painted blue with cowrie shells on their bases, evokes the tragic history of the Atlantic slave trade, but is undermined by a “crass soundtrack of waves”. A series of paintings of tools accompanied by curious written instructions – “Allow for short breaks”, one declares – feels gnomic and unfulfilled.

Elsewhere, double portraits of dandyish black youths hint at Himid’s earlier satires on race, but have none of their bite. What’s more, some of her best art–much of it explicitly “political” – is missing. Ultimately “everything feels deactivated, neutralised”.

“You need a little patience with this exhibition,” said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. Himid is “uneven”. Yet when she’s on form, no artist is quite like her. One highlight of the show is Le Rodeur (2016-17), a series of paintings inspired by a French slave ship whose entire “human cargo” went blind during a voyage in 1819, resulting in three dozen slaves being thrown overboard. The canvases are “crisp and flat as stage sets”, depicting stylishly dressed black passengers on a modern cruise ship gradually losing their sight, as the sea “churns” outside.

Other highlights include a 1984 work that recasts Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach as “an absurd beach scene” in which a pair of black lesbian lovers hurtle across a pink curtain. Best of all is her “masterpiece”, 1986’s A Fashionable Marriage, in which Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode is reimagined as an assemblage of painted wooden figures, notably featuring effigies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan “lounging on a starsand-stripes divan”.

For all its faults, this show confirms Himid as “an irrepressible witness to our times”. You will leave in no doubt of her status as “a modern moral chronicler”.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (tate.org.uk). Until 3 July

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