Lubaina Himid: Meticulous Observations and Naming the Money

Walker Art Gallery 7/10/17

On the walls of the café in the Walker Art Gallery, Turner Prize nominee Lubaina Himid writes: ‘Now I find myself in dialogue with Edmonia Lewis’. She is speaking of her latest project, Meticulous Observations, which begins with Lewis’ – a pioneering 19th Century African American sculptor with Native American heritage – sculpture of Henry Longfellow (1872). In response, Himid has chosen ten pieces of artwork by women artists, alongside her own Scenes from the Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture (1987). The pieces complement one another, and together they depict the extraordinary detail of everyday life. Dialogue – particularly that between women artists, past and present – is central to Himid’s work.

Scenes from the Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture is a series of watercolours depicting the heroic life of former slave turned military leader, Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture. Himid juxtaposes historical military events with everyday occurrences; her focus on the ordinary brings this legend-like figure of black history to life. Her work asks the audience to consider those who have not made the history books, the women integral to, yet overlooked by, L’Ouverture’s famous story. She educates the reader through an accessible mixture of painting and text, but is careful to distance herself from the role of historian: she writes, it is ‘an artist’s view, for historians to use and share’. Again, Himid pushes for a dialogue to extend beyond her work and continue to tell black history.

Naming The Money originally encompassed one hundred life-size figures painted with affluent, vibrant clothes. They are revealed as African slaves; their appearance is a way for Europe’s elite to display their wealth and gloss over the reality of slavery. Each figure is named twice, their black, individual identities persisting against the homogenous mass of slavery. It is worth seeing in its entirety (at the International Slavery Museum) to feel the impact of the full installation.

Lubaina Himid Image

In the Walker, Naming The Money takes on a new meaning. Himid places twenty of the figures around the gallery and invites the audience to draw links with specific paintings. In the Sculpture Gallery, the blues and greens of Rashida’s skirt provide a marked contrast with the classic, marble white statues. Ever more poignant is this display of black identity amongst the Gods, kings and upper classes traditionally represented in the marble statues. It is not hard to imagine that the latter are the slave masters.

As visitors are taken on a chronological journey of European art, Himid’s figures are a stark reminder that slavery has always been present. The installation is immersive, but the relative ease with which you can bypass the figures is a comment on our collective complicity in black slavery. Her exhibition marks an important event in Liverpool’s Black History Month: both a celebration of Himid’s achievements as an artist and woman of colour, and a reminder of the struggles of many before her.

There is hardly a better time to visit the Walker Art Gallery. Whether you’re familiar with Himid’s previous work, or are looking for an accessible and powerful exhibition, Meticulous Observations and Naming the Money, which runs until 18th March, is not to be missed. Her exhibition offers an exciting glimpse into the contemporary art scene, and proves that Himid is more than deserving of her Turner Prize nomination.

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