Lubaina Himid at Tate Modern

Known for her innovative approaches to painting and social engagement, Himid has been pivotal in the UK since the 1980s for her contributions to the British Black Arts Movement, making space for the expression and recognition of Black experience and women’s creativity. 

The stage is set, the music ready, the audience is quiet. You step forward and enter the gallery-theatre on the second floor of the Tate Modern, home to Lubaina Himid’s latest exhibition.

Himid not only invites you to view her works, but to become actively involved in the exhibition rather than to passively observe it. She pushes the boundaries between painting and participating, between the inquisitive observer and the painted character. The exhibition clearly reflects Himid’s interest in opera and her training in theatre design, as each gallery opens its arms to the viewer and draws them in, with music composed specifically for each room.

Himid states: “The audience member is in the paintings…The experience should be similar to entering a room and deciding what you’re going to do, how you will react and interact.”

What’s clear is that though full of whimsy, colour, and often fairy-tale like escapism, this exhibition paints a thoughtful narrative for us to question and scrutinise the often-invisible aspects of everyday life that we’re conditioned to accept. Before even entering the exhibition space, we’re greeted outside by huge fabric flags, designed like East African Kanga fabrics, which include questions such as ‘How do you spell change?’ Upon entering the exhibition, we’re asked more questions with each room, for example, one that left such an impression on me that I have found it running through my mind ever since; that, as women – ‘we live in clothes, we live in buildings – but do they fit us?’

Inspiringly, she paints homes for women with curved, organic, walls – suggesting movement, growth, expansion. Would women’s lives be different if the built environment was tailored to our needs? Himid challenges us with what we readily accept in society, she asks us to confront everything, from the rigidity of the architecture we occupy, to the rigidity of the patriarchal society that formed those very walls. Himid asks us to consider how our man-made environment, our history, experiences, and past and present conflicts shape our lives. The questions traced on the walls are almost ice-breakers, or starting points for deeper conversation, as if to influence you to look at the person next to you and figure out your answers together, placing the viewer at the ship’s bow of her own exhibition.

Going on to interrogate the structural rules and regulations we find ourselves bound by, we are initially met with nine colourful sheets of metal in Himid’s piece Metal Handkerchiefs. These reference the health and safety guides that dictate the very ways in which buildings are constructed, with phrases such as ‘allow for short breaks’, ‘work from underneath’ and ‘provide adequate protection’ composed within a colourful, bordered metal square. The alienation of each phrase, alone in their four walls, pulled out of their handbook habitat and placed inside their new, colourful context, forces the viewer to examine each word to make sense of these obscure sentences, perhaps to highlight the obscurity with which these commandments were created in the first place, emphasising our need to query these assertions, even if taken from ‘all-knowing’ handbooks.

Himid leaves space in her paintings, around tables and gatherings of people, for us to enter the scene and join the discussion, allowing the surrounding music, the space, and the artwork to draw you further into her world. Whether we’re in the painting, an actor on the set of her theatre scene, or swimming through the sea of one of her soundscapes, the exhibition evokes contemplative feelings. Its bright, playful, colours branding a lasting, searching, imprint of afterthoughts on the mind of the viewer long after the spectacle of painted theatre has been consumed.

Lubaina Himid is showing at the Tate Modern until 2 October 2022.