Warp and Weft is a survey of works by the 2017 Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid.
A key figure in the Black Arts Movement, Lubaina Himid first came to prominence in the 1980s when she began organising exhibitions of work by her peers, whom were under-represented in the contemporary art scene. Her diverse approach disrupts preconceptions of the world by introducing historical and contemporary stories of racial bias and acts of violence inflicted upon oppressed communities.
Himid is best known as a painter, and Warp and Weft is comprised of three bodies of work in which the artist adopts the mantel of the History painter to question its imperialist tradition. By reinserting black figures into this arena of power and prestige, Himid foregrounds the contribution of people of the African diaspora to Western culture and economy.
The exhibition’s title, Warp and Weft, refers to the process by which threads are held in tension on a frame or loom to create cloth. Himid chose the title for its reference to Colchester’s important position in the wool trade between the 13th and 16th centuries, and its complex history of race and migration that is reflected in the productive tensions of Himid’s work.
Naming the Money (2004) is the largest installation to make use of Himid’s signature ‘cut-outs’ — paintings made on freestanding shaped boards that viewers can walk amongst. Like stage-flats, these works reflect Himid’s early training in theatrical set design. At Firstsite, seventy cut-outs represent African slaves in the royal courts of eighteenth century Europe. The work features a soundtrack which gives voice to the figures, and shifts between their original African names and trades and the new names and professions imposed upon them in Europe.
The monochromatic Cotton.com (2002) is inspired by a little known act of solidarity enacted by Manchester mill workers at the time of the American Civil War (1861-64). As President Lincoln moved to abolish slavery, raw cotton supplies from the plantations to British mills dried up, resulting in mass unemployment – an event known as the Cotton Famine. Despite the high personal cost, the workers’ unions passed a motion in support of Lincoln’s efforts to end slavery. In Cotton.com Himid imagines a conversation carried out between labourers on both sides of the Atlantic, an exchange dependent not upon language but rather pattern. Pattern plays a key part in Himid’s painterly grammar; regarded as feminine and merely decorative, it operates in the work as a means of non-literal communication. ‘I love the language of pattern, its immense potential for movement, illusion, colour experiments and subliminal political messaging. This…is just part of the exploration of how to imply invisible influences without explanation but without slipping into the abstract. The patterns are narratives.’ The work is completed by a text adapted from one written by a plantation inspector and selected for its perverse romanticisation of a woman’s enforced labour. A vocal feminist and defender of womens’ rights, Himid empowers the woman to speak back to the male gaze.
The exhibition also includes the series Negative Positives: The Guardian Archive (2007 – 2016). For ten years, Himid has collected every daily edition of The Guardian, her newspaper of choice, building up a comprehensive archive. For Negative Positives the artist selects pages in which photographs of black politicians, athletes and celebrities appear, to highlight what she interprets as a routine association of such images with negative headlines, news stories or
editorials, often entirely unrelated to the person depicted. The artist paints over sections of the newspaper layouts with bright patterns, geometric shapes and imagery that migrates from advertisements on the page. Himid views this painterly intervention as an ‘attempt to reclaim the portrait of the person [and] restore the balance.’
‘The point I am often exploring vis-à-vis the black experience is that of being so very visible and different in the White Western everyday yet so invisible and disregarded in the cultural, historical, political or economic record or history.’
Warp and Weft follows three critically acclaimed presentations of Himid’s work at contemporary art institutions in the UK: the simultaneous solo exhibitions Navigation Charts at Spike Island, Bristol (20 January – 26 March 2017), and Invisible Strategies at Modern Art Oxford (21 January – 30 April 2017), and The Place is Here, a group show at Nottingham Contemporary (4 February – 30 April 2017), which traced conversations between black artists, writers and thinkers in 1980s Britain. Following the exhibition at Firstsite, the touring programme will conclude at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, in Spring 2018.
The exhibition is supported by Arts Council England Strategic Touring fund.