Lubaina Himid and Marlene Smith: young Black artists in 1980s Britain
Lubaina Himid and Marlene Smith talk to Art Quarterly editor Helen Sumpter about making art against a backdrop of socio-economic unrest, and the continuing impact of their early work.
Who are Lubaina Himid and Marlene Smith?
Winner of the Turner Prize 2017, Lubaina Himid is an internationally exhibited artist and educator, holding the post of Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. Born in Zanzibar in 1954 and brought up in the UK, her work interrogates the representation of marginalised histories of people from the African diaspora in art and history. She works extensively with museum collections and archives, and her work is held publicly in institutions including Tate, the V&A and Manchester Art Gallery.
Born in Birmingham in 1964, Marlene Smith is an artist and curator, and was a key member of the Black Arts Movement in the UK in the 1980s. Between 2015 and 2018, she completed a PhD examining the role women’s exhibition history played during that decade in shaping the art of the time. During this period, she was also UK research manager for the AHRC-funded Black Artists & Modernism project (BAM), supported by Art Fund, a three-year research scheme focused on the relationship between the work of artists of African and Asian descent and Modernism.
Lubaina Himid and Marlene Smith in conversation with Helen Sumpter in 2017
Helen Sumpter: You both have work in the group exhibition ‘The Place is Here’ at Nottingham Contemporary, featuring pivotal art made during the 1980s by Black British artists and thinkers, when notions of culture, identity and politics in Britain were being debated against a backdrop of socio-economic unrest. Some of the works that are in the exhibition were first exhibited together in 2016 at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, in an exhibition called ‘The 1980s: Today’s Beginnings?’ What was it like for you to see those works exhibited again, 30 years after they were made, and alongside each other?
Marlene Smith: Do you know, it was a total delight. The work I showed at Van Abbe is called Art History (1987). It’s an assemblage consisting of four small framed images alongside a vase of plastic flowers which sits in a crocheted jacket. The work is making reference to women’s practice and Black women’s practice in particular, which I suppose was my attempt at the time to rethink what a long view of Black women’s creativity might look like. It’s recently been bought by Museums Sheffield, after it was shown there in 2011, so it has been exhibited since the 1980s. But the additional delight in seeing it at the Van Abbe – and I’m anticipating a similar experience at Nottingham – is the conversations that happen when it’s in a room with work not only by Lubaina, but by Claudette Johnson, Maud Sulter, Ingrid Pollard and other contemporaries. The room just looked very beautiful.
Lubaina Himid: It did; it was stunning. One of my works is a piece called Toussaint L’Ouverture (1987), a kind of semi-cutout [depicting the former 18th-century military commander, political tactician, former slave and key player in the Haitian Revolution] with collaged text and newspaper cuttings from the 1980s featuring Margaret Thatcher and reports of beatings and shootings that were happening at that time. It was making the point that if Toussaint L’Ouverture hadn’t done what he’d done in the 1790s we wouldn’t be where we were then, in the 1980s. Showing it now, as I’m often saying, will bring up both how much has changed since then and how much is the same. Another work is a cutout of a woman titled, We Will Be (1983) which again has collage – including wool, silver paper and a text which states that we will be who we want to be, when we want to be [it’s from this text that the exhibition in Nottingham took its title]. That piece is owned by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It now seems astonishingly bold somehow.
MS: I’m trying to think of the first time I would have seen your work… I think it must have been in ‘Five Black Women’, the exhibition that you organised at the Africa Centre in London in 1983. It must have been the same year, or the year after that, that you came up to Bradford [as a tutor], where I was an art undergraduate and we had the first proper conversation about making work. That was a really important conversation, for me. It was an opportunity to speak to somebody who recognised something about my intentions as an artist. The course at Bradford had wanted to be socially engaged and a bit radical but, in retrospect, I think that it resulted in it separating out into lots of different components. So there was a sort of Marxist printmaking tutor who really wanted me to do printmaking, as that was the way forward because print wasn’t about making a precious object. Then there was a feminist-theory person who wanted to take me under her wing – and both were trying to direct my work.
LH: I think it was important for me because I could absolutely see in my head that the conversations I was having with you and artists like Zarina Bhimji at Goldsmiths all joined up. Bradford did at least have the balls to ask me to come up, rather than just wait for their students to give up and go home, which a lot of them did. So, I became this kind of flying tutor. They’d say, ‘We’ve got this student, they never come in and when they come in they won’t talk, and they won’t show us anything. Can you talk to them?’ They didn’t realise that all you needed to do was listen to these students and respect their intelligence. I think that’s why I got into teaching. I just thought, ‘I do know how to do this, and I want to see a student’s progress from the moment they come to the moment they leave, rather than just have these short, intensive conversations.’ The conversations were happening anyway, at places like the Black Art Gallery [in Finsbury Park in London].
MS: Yes, looking back to the 1980s we did set up spaces to speak to each other, whether physical spaces or groups like the Blk Art Group [a group of young artists including Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper, Claudette Johnson and Donald Rodney, which Smith joined in 1982], but we were also students within art colleges who were showing our work. These spaces weren’t so much separate as specific. As a student, you find a thing that you want to make work about – whether that’s subject matter or a way of working – and then you find other like-minded students to work alongside to make whatever that is. We weren’t outside that world, but I do think that it’s taken some time for that world to write about and collect the work and be comfortable in having that conversation.
“The best of my tutors were the ones who said, ‘You need to look at this artist’; the worst were the ones who said, ‘So, Brixton riots, were you there?’” Marlene Smith
LH: I think that’s a very key thing you’ve said there. It is about writing about, thinking about, and talking about the work. One of the dangers of being in a show like ‘The Place is Here’ is that we’ll again be talking about the activity of being activists, which we absolutely were, but that we won’t also talk about the activity of being artists.
MS: That was part of the issue that I found as a student – that some of my tutors were more interested in my family background than they were about the lines I was making or the medium I was working in. The best of my tutors were the ones who said, ‘You need to look at this artist,’ or, ‘Have you seen this?’ or even, ‘That’s terrible!’ The worst were the ones that said, ‘So, Brixton riots, were you there?’
LH: But I think that the Nottingham show also has the potential to be very moving. Nick Aikens [curator at Van Abbe and co-curator, with Sam Thorne, of ‘The Place is Here’] has chosen some great pieces of work, and by juxtaposing them in a way that hasn’t been done before he’s asking questions and creating different dialogues between the works. He’s really engaging with the stuff, and his idea of looking at the exhibition in terms of cut-and-paste and collage – both in terms of materials and in a theoretical and intellectual way – is an interesting one. I was making things from collage because there was an energy in grabbing things that came to hand.
MS: Yes, for the work Art History I really wanted the materials and the objects to carry the meaning. The images are postcard-size and displayed in clip-frames, which suggest a kind of domestic interior. The coat the vase sits in was crocheted by my mother and is making references back to another type of domestic interior. In bringing these things together I’m trying to get the found thing and the made thing to reveal their meaning in some way, and in the gallery space it has a different type of voice. There’s also the juxtaposition of the things that are brought together to make the work and who is doing the making, so there are also layers of making there.
LH: I think also, for me, because I trained first as a theatre designer, I’m a bit obsessed with audience – who’s going to be engaging with what I’m making and how are they looking at it and what will they do with it once they’ve looked at it? So I was making work from stuff that people would recognise. When I made the 10-piece cutout installation A Fashionable Marriage (1986) [using Hogarth’s satire as a reference], I was taking stuff out of skips and off the street. There was also that sort of Brechtian theatre way of doing things, which makes it clear that it’s not magic – you can see the screws and the glue. It was important to show that you could make something out of the things around you. It was also about connecting in a chance encounter, everyday sort of way, which is why the work looked like it did. That whole conversation about the everyday was also important because there were too many descriptions of us at that time as ‘other’, as if we didn’t do ordinary things like go shopping or buy clothes – we would only be talked about as an angry person or a rioting person or a druggy person.
MS: There was a whole lot of layering happening in the conversations we were having too. We would have individual conversations, then a group would be brought together and we would be introduced to each other’s work. I remember that excitement from ‘The Thin Black Line’ [an exhibition of 11 Black and Asian artists selected by Himid, at the ICA in London in 1985, that included Smith, Sutapa Biswas, Ingrid Pollard and Chila Kumari Burman], not just because it was the ICA but because it was that group of artists. That show was really significant for me as an artist. What’s still disappointing, though, is that at the time the work itself wasn’t really talked about.
LH: I think that what I intended for the show, I realise now, was not necessarily for it to be talked about in the press, but for it to continue strengthening the conversations and for the artists in the show to keep talking to each other, which is, of course, absolutely what happened. Creative relationships then happened that were nothing to do with me. So in those terms it probably did do what it set out to do, although I don’t think I saw that at the time.
MS: Yes, and I think that it’s still important now to have those conversations with your peers. What I find astonishing now, as I’m getting older, is that I’m meeting younger artists all the time who want to have conversations about that work. It’s fascinating to be having those discussions with artists who are making their first works now.
LH: That’s one of the reasons why I set up an archive. [Himid leads the collaborative interdisciplinary visual art research project ‘Making Histories Visible’, based in the Centre for Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. The project holds books, catalogues and other materials from the Black diaspora from the 1980s to the present day and collaborates with museums and artists to explore the contribution of Black visual art to the cultural landscape.] It was so that people who are interested can spend a couple of days there – and I won’t have to hear myself say this all over again! It provides the opportunity to see how we made a project or projects, some of which failed – and the ones that did you can see how they failed and maybe how to do it better. It’s astonishing to me how many young artists seem relieved not just that the archive is there but that we tried to do what we did.
MS: That’s one of the things that has made me want to write more. I still have this bee in my bonnet about the work itself not really being properly discussed. I’m also curating one of the archive displays in ‘The Place is Here’ exhibition. But, for me, I think that one of the things that’s definitely different now – and I’ve told this story so many times that I get bored saying it – is that when I was at school wanting to find Black artists my teachers told me there weren’t any, and they really believed that. I don’t really think that anyone would have that level of ignorance now.
A version of this article first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
‘The Place is Here’ was on show at Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, from 4 February 2017 to 1 May 2017.