‘Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service is an intervention, a mapping and an excavation. It is a fragile monument to an invisible engine working for nothing in an amazingly greedy machine. It remembers slave servants, sugary food, mahogany furniture, greedy families, tobacco and cotton fabrics but then mixes them with British wild flowers, elegant architecture and African patterns…On every item it’s possible to see large areas of the original design as the new painting emerges or unsuccessfully attempts to hide the identity of the old.’Lubaina Himid on Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service
In 2017, the Turner Prize was awarded to Lubaina Himid in what seemed like a culmination of several key shifts taking place in contemporary culture. As well as being the first woman of colour to win the prize, Himid was also the oldest recipient, thanks to the organisers’ decision to scrap a discriminatory upper age cap that meant artists over 50 were previously not eligible for consideration. This was a welcome change that acknowledged not only the fact that artists of any age can have a breakthrough moment, but also the many years of systematic discrimination and marginalisation that largely excluded women and people of colour from cultural institutions. For many, the 2017 award was a moment of long-overdue recognition for an artist who had been at the vanguard of British art since the 1980s.
Himid was born in Zanzibar in 1954, but her mother relocated the family to London that same year. Himid’s mother’s job as a textile designer was a key early influence on her artistic development; she went on to study Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of Art and then an MA in Cultural History at the RCA, where her thesis focused on ‘Young Black Artists in Britain Today’. Along with a network of women artists including Sonia Boyce and Claudette Johnson, Himid has played a pivotal role in developing, supporting, and promoting Black British art throughout her career. In her role as Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire, she continues to build networks that facilitate the discussion and curation of black women’s art in Britain.
Himid’s Turner Prize exhibition – which contained work from the 1980s to the present day – was a visual feast that drew on her training in theatre design and her long-held fascination with the ‘secret language’ of pattern; through brightly coloured portraits, a stage set of cut-out characters in satirical homage to Hogarth, and a painted, repurposed porcelain dinner set, Himid brought together visually dazzling work that challenges the white gaze. It encapsulated the ways Himid’s work consistently critiques structures of power and wealth accumulation, highlighting the insidious ways that capitalism and racism have distorted society and controlled cultural narratives. She brings black lives centre stage, celebrating their multiplicity of experiences and claiming space for their stories.
Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service was a particularly stand out work in the Turner Prize exhibition. This installation had been commissioned by Lancashire Museums to function as an intervention into the Judges’ Lodgings – a historic Regency town house and the former home of Thomas Covell, a 17th Lord Mayor of Lancaster and, as the Keeper of Lancaster Castle, the man responsible for jailing the Pendle witches. Through the Lancaster Dinner Service, Himid interrogates the city’s involvement in the slave trade, forcing the viewer to confront the dark histories of the British Empire and the ongoing legacies of this violence and oppression. The genteel patterns of the porcelain-ware mix with Himid’s painted portraits, making visible the unknown black slaves whose exploitation facilitated the development of British cities and lined the pockets of powerful slave-owners and industrialists – exploitation that was covered up by a façade cultivated by ‘civilised’ British high-society and their polite rituals of tea-drinking in drawing-rooms decorated with grand displays of their wealth and power (including, of course, their slaves – see for example Sir Peter Lely’s 1651 portrait Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache, later Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale with a Black Servant). The origin of the pottery that makes up the Lancaster Dinner Service is also a crucial part of its overall impact: Himid sourced the pieces from local charity shops, lending the installation a homely, familiar feel that underscores the degree to which everyday life is enmeshed in national and international political systems.