Lubaina Himid has had a long career as an artist and educator in Britain, where she is currently the highly respected Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. Her personal work, seen in many solo and group exhibitions, addresses the issues surrounding Black and minority ethnic people, investigating the heritage of slavery and colonialism, and the impacts of these factors on contemporary society. In November 2017 she was the winner of The Turner Prize, an award that proved both popular and, in some quarters, controversial. Richard Noyce interviewed Lubaina Himid for artBahrain.
You were born in Zanzibar, but moved to Britain with your mother following the death of your father when you were 4 months old. To what extent has the place of your birth been an influence on you, and have you returned to Zanzibar since that time?
The fact that I was born in Zanzibar is quite central to who I am. I was aware of the importance of knowing and understanding and embracing the fact that I am an African from an early age.
Your higher education gained you a BA in Theatre Studies from Wimbledon College of Art in 1976 and an MA in Cultural Studies from the Royal College of Art in 1984. How influential have these specifically focussed degree subjects been on your subsequent career?
I didn’t enjoy very many things that were part of doing either of these degrees – the people teaching me were predictably conservative. However, I learned so many important things about myself and about how the world worked; how possible but slow making changes might be. I learned how to fail and how much could be gained by taking risks. I learned not to worry about the danger of speaking out and living the kind of life I wanted to live.
You received your MA in the same year that the Black Art Group was formed in Britain. How influential has that movement been, and what progress do you think there has been in the 33 years since its formation? How much further progress do you think is still needed?
The Black Art Group were organising conferences and making shows together some time before and all during the time I was doing my MA at the Royal College of Art. They undoubtedly led the way, but I linked up with the women in the group and went on to develop my strategies with them and other women from there. The influence we have all had has been quite significant especially when you compare it to progress in continental Europe but there is still so much to do. Young children are denied a proper education around colonialism in our schools; for instance, they should be taught that people from other countries are here because Britain has always benefited in a multitude of ways from being ‘over there’.
In a career of more than 30 years you have gained a remarkable record of exhibitions in Britain and internationally. The themes/concerns in your work include Black creativity, the history and identity of Black people in Britain, and slavery and colonisation. Do you consider that the general understanding of these themes has improved in Britain? How much further does this process have to go before the work of Black artists, and artists of other minority origins, is given its rightful place in British cultural life?
I don’t particularly engage with sociological statistics and surveys of attitudes so how could I know? I can feel and see differences myself but they are based on my own experience, I cannot speak for the people of the black diaspora across the country nor about the indigenous white British people. What we read in the press is there to sell newspapers, what we hear in Parliament is filtered through the degrees of privilege and ego inherent in the personalities of the politicians. This is not really a question I can answer with any amount of expertise, I am an artist, I teach art all day long, speaking to student artists and those who have been professional practitioners for years. We talk about failing experimenting, we think all day long about making, funding that making and finding places to show, and most importantly how to sustainably develop ideas.
Britain is, at the moment, in the throes of the highly divisive and contentious process of negotiating the exit of the country from the European Union. Your work is aimed squarely at improving the recognition and integration of Black Art in British cultural life. How concerned are you that Britain’s retreat from the EU might damage the improvement and acceptance of Black Art in Britain?
I’m appalled that Britain voted to leave the EU but not surprised. There is so much unnecessary poverty and deprivation in this country, so much wilful neglect of the mentally ill and far too much disdain for the proper education of young people, that those British citizens living in the countryside or in smaller towns and cities feel quite rightly that they are on the scrap heap and not important. Despite this cruel economic reality and the love affair the establishment have with nurturing poverty we have been surprisingly more advanced in taking on board the cultural contribution made by ‘the other’ than many continental Europeans. You won’t find the same amount of acceptance of the black diasporan contribution to the cultural landscape in Germany or France – in Spain or Italy even – in 2018, forty years after we began to speak about it here.
Your website contains a section dealing with your 2004 exhibition, ‘Naming the Money’ in which you address the role of money in the historical period in which Black people played a subservient role in British society, first as slaves and later as servants. This section of your website also contains three eloquent letters in which you address the high costs of creating the works for the exhibition, and the role of money in the art world in general. How much of a parallel do you consider exists between these two aspects of British society. Has society really improved, or is it just that the focus has shifted?
Of course, society has improved but for many people life here is unnecessarily bleak because people are poor. There is no need to be poor here. Some people have more money than they could ever need and it is immoral not to share it. Successive governments will not make the moves or change the laws to change this state of affairs so artists and activists have to keep making the point over and over and over again.
How important to you is your work as a teacher, as Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire?
I’ve been teaching almost half of my life and honestly it was the best thing to have spent all that time doing. Imagine talking to emerging artists all day long, every day, about their ideas then being able to watch their wild experiments and their audacious risk taking as the ideas develop into something you yourself may never have thought of. When you take the time and have the freedom to do it properly it is a magnificent way to spend a life.
In 2017 you were named as ‘Artist of the Year’ by Apollo magazine in a short list that included, among others, David Hockney and Jasper Johns. Later that same year you were awarded The Turner Prize. How important, to you personally, and to Black Art in general, are these awards? How do you hope they will help your work in future?
The Apollo Magazine award was fun, a nice certificate, a lovely dinner in an auction house surrounded by beautiful paintings and a magnum of champagne, which my friends and I enjoyed at a party they gave for me a few days later. The shortlist was rather surprising but I tried not to take it too seriously and just go with the fact that I can make good work and now is the time some people have decided to recognise it.
Black men have won the Turner Prize in recent years twice so winning was a different challenge though I’ve tried not to take that so very seriously either in the way it relates to my real life.
So many people in the city where I live, Preston in the north of England, were so happy for me it was humbling. Today, several weeks later, people who I don’t know approach me in the street to say how proud they are that I won it.
It is obviously important that I live in a country with an art establishment that has the nerve to give the Turner Prize to me, but this strong daring attempt to treat black women as equals has to be translated into other areas of society for it to be sustainable. The people here in Britain can be tolerant, strong in their beliefs, deeply caring, very clever and wonderfully funny; we know how to do things the right way but…