Her work animates the consequences of our colonial history and the construction of identity politics: in a divided Britain, will we listen?
Where to begin?
It was Stuart Hall who used the term ‘double perspective’ to convey the residual effects of movement, relocation, and otherness upon the identity of immigrant communities. Whether remain or leave, it's perhaps also a term that could be easily applied to the current status of these divided islands. As the rules of order are currently being rewritten, and the UK undergoes arguably the biggest constitutional crisis since the Second World War, it’s hard not to think of the present without understanding how we arrived at this point. Place this against a backdrop of increasing acceptance that the ideology of neo-liberalism is failing to deliver, and a political system playing catch-up with events, then things are bound to unravel.
The British Isles, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or whatever uneasy tangle of names this country considers itself to be, was viewed from a very different perspective when the bombs were falling across Europe. ‘There is no question about the inequality of wealth in England. It is grosser than in any European Country, and you only have to look down the nearest street to see it’, wrote George Orwell in his 1941 essay ‘The Lion & The Unicorn’. He was an acute observer of the multiple idiosyncrasies that make up the national psyche, not least our tolerance for incompetence, class structure, and how the texture of these islands are held together by invisible threads of common understanding. He saw things then largely as they might be seen now, except this time, somehow, it feels different.
Post-financial crisis, post-parliamentary expenses scandal, post-Leveson, post 2011 riots (remember those?). Two referendums: one Scottish, one EU. The Chilcot Report, a full-blown housing crisis, an opportunistic General election and Universal Credit, is a sequence that reads like a litany for division and discontent in anyone’s book. Finally, Grenfell, a tragedy which saw appalling levels of contempt crystallized by those in authority for those at the bottom. No wonder everyone except the one percent so effectively identified by Thomas Piketty are pissed off. As it turns out, the more things change, the more they remain the same. This is England your England, never have Orwell’s words seemed more apposite.
So, all this should make fertile ground for art and artists, no?
The City of Hull is of course designated this year’s UK City of Culture, a four-yearly Department of Culture Media and Sport government enterprise designed to regenerate local economies and infrastructure. This is not to be confused with the European City of Culture which the UK will inevitably be disqualified from in due course. However, as most artists know, context can be everything, and as a key part of the UK City of Culture package, the city is host to the Turner Prize and the context of Hull is no exception. Despite facing eastwards and outwards toward Europe, it is a location that voted 68% in favour of leaving the EU.
In the meantime, Tate did a bit of its own rewriting of the rules, and in a move to increase inclusiveness they finally removed the maximum age restriction of 50, a rule introduced in 1991. Sure, the artists on this year’s shortlist couldn’t in any way be described as late developers and this year’s quartet of nominees bring all the benefits of lived experience to the mix. Each could be described as falling into either the established, or mid-career category, and comprised Hurvin Anderson, Andrea Büttner, Lubaina Himid and Rosalind Nashashibi.
Read: Paul Clinton on The Turner Prize and Identity Politics
Indeed, either the jury has extended invitations to the nominees in an affirmative statement to assert diversity and inclusiveness, or otherwise are offering something deeper to address the multiple perspectives of identity that have always existed between the empowered and disempowered. If so, then to what extent do the nominees counter the inequalities and divisions shown in domestic politics now?
On display are diverse sets of strategies: poetic in Anderson’s paintings as meditations on black experience in an English urban and suburban context, or more direct in Büttner’s archival appropriation of key artefacts such as the Simone Weil archive. Her depiction of the destitute and homeless exudes empathy as a recurring motif which makes its point effectively. Another strategy, perhaps a more implicit one, is taken by Nashashibi who presents two films – Electrical Gaza (2015) and Vivian’s Garden (2017) – each depicting circumstances which are framed by unseen or outside forces. Here the artist chooses to show work at opposite ends of the spectrum of human experience. The first, the result of international conflict whose roots lie in Britain’s colonial blundering arrogance in Palestine, the second an intimate portrayal between a mother and daughter in a Guatemalan jungle.
Now that the Turner Prize (established in 1984) is firmly embedded in the national consciousness as one of the main gongs during awards season, there is an implicit understanding from Tate, which runs the award, that the level of debate and publicity in attracting a mainstream audience has been achieved – a process that has also been completed through sponsorship and the media. It has equally been a catalyst in reinventing the idea of the museum itself, what it does, and who might it be for. However, from the artists’ perspective, while each speaks to the wider circumstances through their work, they have made something that works for the here and now. Notably, there are no new commissions for this year’s prize exhibition, which leaves one wondering what approaches Tate may yet take in the future as circumstances continually shift and change.
Yet it seems appropriate that certain artists find their voice and gain wider acceptance in a world finally catching up with them. The unalterable reality for deserved winner Lubaina Himid – nominated for her solo exhibitions at Spike Island, Bristol and Modern Art Oxford, UK earlier this year as well as her work included in the survey of black British art of the 1980s ‘The Place Is Here’ at Nottingham Contemporary – is a level of professional validation that can be both career defining and international in scope. At the age of 63 the art world has at last caught up with Himid’s engaging tableaux of collage, drawing, painting, interventions, cut-outs, protagonists, and characterizations. Her work – a product of her lived reality growing up as a black woman in Britain as much as her schooling in theatre design at Wimbledon College of Art and cultural history at the Royal College of Art London – does much to animate the consequences of our colonial history and how identity politics are constructed. It’s a view that we may choose, at our own expense, to ignore. But maybe now through Himid’s eyes these stories can be heard. The least we can do is listen.
Read: Lubaina Himid: My Influences
Given all of this year’s participants originate beyond these shores, and implicitly address the condition of the double perspective, in Hull at least, the reality will hit home that it’s one in the eye for every little Englander. Whose England? England your England, perhaps even Orwell might have approved. It is a sentiment that resonates.
Main image: Lubaina Himid. Courtesy: Modern Art Oxford; photograph: Edmund Blok