An interview with Lubaina Himid

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We caught up with Lubaina Himid to discuss Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service and the importance of craft and textiles in her practice…

What do craft and the decorative mean to you?

When I hear the word Craft I think of skilled makers with years of training designing one off beautiful objects. The Decorative on the other hand conjures up thoughts of patterns and how I feel they are a series of secret languages.  

This issue is on ‘ceramics’ so firstly we’d love to ask a bit more about ‘Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service’ (2007). Could you tell us more about how craft practices and ceramics informed your approach to history?

In  Swallow Hard : The Lancaster Dinner Service (2007) a one hundred piece installation, I used old, cheap, printed, British everyday ceramics bought from junk shops and markets. The plates, jugs and tureens are familiar objects to most people and therefore it’s easy for anyone to relate to. I chose each piece according to the pattern and glaze or the scene on the surface and whether I would be able to adapt it to my narrative. There are willow patterned plates of course, but also many with flowers, birds, fruits and rural scenes or cityscapes. In addition, I wanted to make sure the shape and size of a jug or tureen would accommodate the face of a person in close up as a “portrait”. 

Could you speak a little more on how the dinner service is ‘an intervention, a mapping and an excavation’?

It was important that the installation looked at first glance as if it was a two- hundred- year- old memorial dinner service made at the time of the act of parliament abolishing the trade in slaves in Britain. It was shown at the Judges’ Lodgings Museum in Lancaster on a Waring and Gillow, six metre long dining table made from Caribbean mahogany, perhaps brought to Britain on a ship, as ballast, returning from the delivery of enslaved Africans. The idea was for it to blend into the surrounding paintings objects and furniture reflecting and highlighting both the delight and murky history of the room and the museum itself. In a sense it maps the history of the city of Lancaster in the time of the trade in slaves in Britain. It points to those who fought to abolish the trade and those who battled to keep it going because they were ship builders or landowners. The clergy were on both sides, the wealthy and the aristocracy were mostly rather dismayed to be losing their money. I spent a year or more excavating the history of the city with the help of slavery historians and academics who specialised in the black Atlantic and slave narratives. At the same time, I walked the streets of the city for months taking photographs and imagining being one of the few people of colour who were owned by and served dinner to these Lancaster families.  

The way you worked with found objects reminds us of Betye Saar’s approach to assemblage. How did you source the materials? Did anything in particular ‘speak’ to you in the objects chosen? 

I have been very influenced by Betye Saar for the past 30 years or so and have spoken to her at length about how she works and how/where she gathers objects. It took about 6 months of regularly wandering around retail outlets, including local vintage, junk and antique markets alongside charity shops in the North West, from Lancaster to Blackpool, Manchester, Preston and Morecambe. All of the ceramics were very reasonably priced with nothing costing more than £10 or so but the entire dinner service comprised 100 pieces. 

How does the dinner service comment on the mechanics of capitalism? 

The Dinner Service directly comments on the mechanics of capitalism – it remains true today that it’s staggeringly easy to increase your wealth if you don’t pay the people who work for you. Surely today’s capitalism is a polite and slightly more moderate version of this. The harder you work, the longer your hours, the sparser your education and the poorer your beginnings have been, the more likely it will be that you will always earn well below the amount needed to live reasonably. 

The concept of a ‘dinner service’ also calls to mind Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’ which has been recently paired with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s 1930s ceramic project and critiqued by Patricia Kaersenhout in her piece ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?’. Which is all a long-winded way of asking do you see ‘Swallow Hard’ as being in dialogue with other feminist works?

Well for me it is in no way in dialogue with Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party which always seemed to be more about the artist than it was about other women. Mine is an installation that tries to point out a past crime against humanity while warning that these ways of exploiting people for financial gain are still very prevalent. I am a feminist and my concerns are for the establishment of an equal society where women are listened to, at the very least. Once women are treated humanely across the globe there is a chance that the world will have changed for the better in a significant way. 

Could you tell us a bit about your experiences as a curator and member of the Black Art Movement in the 1980/90s? Do you feel that energy is returning to the art world today?

I curated several exhibitions of artwork by Black women in the 1980s and 1990s. It was mostly unfunded work and no one in the media bothered to write much about what we were doing. Art historians like Griselda Pollock was very supportive and wrote about what we were trying to do. This led to other women working on scrutinising our practices within the context of art history.   

It is a huge complex story and the truth of the matter is that to describe my role as being a member of something is not quite correct – I was part of and sometimes led, a series of projects to change the way the British looked at history, art history and the contribution that people of the black diaspora have made to this world. 

Do you feel that energy is returning to the art world today? 

Do you mean my political energy within the art world ? Well it never went away.

Do you mean the energy of the art world to promote art by black people ?  – Yes if it is going to make commercial money or make curator reputations, the energy will always return and probably increase.

How does your background in theatre design and interest in textiles inform your practice? 

I trained as a theatre designer at Wimbledon Art School in the early 1970s but it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience. However I learned to understand that audiences give a production its life and energy so, ever since, I have attempted to give the audiences for my work the feeling that they have genuine agency in the showing space and, more importantly, beyond the experience of looking at my work on show.

My interest in textiles originates with the fact that my mother was a textile designer and we spent many years looking at fabric in department stores and small boutiques every other weekend in London where we lived. As I grew older I began to understand the ‘secret language’ conveyed by the patterns integral to women’s clothes and accessories the world over. 

Does craft/making inform your teaching practice? If so, how?

Some of my research projects at the University of Central Lancashire have recently taken place in the Print room. It is called ArtLab Contemporary Print Studios and is a magnificent facility led by research staff Magda Stawarska-Beavan and Tracy Hill; both of whom are stunningly accomplished and innovative printmakers using the traditional methods. Both women exhibit widely and each has a practice which includes sound art and installation in Magda’s work and drawing in situ in Tracy’s.

Finally, what materials could you not live without?

I could not live without my art and design books which range from the usual art history and contemporary catalogues to books on basket weaving, pattern, theatre design, fashion, puppets, posters, mazes, tiles, Persian miniatures, birds, fish, trees, human anatomy, architecture, film, gardens, folk art, the Harlem renaissance and the Spanish civil war.

Neither could I survive for long without Liquitex Acrylics with their intense and long-lasting colours 

Find out more about Lubaina Himid on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Words & Questions: Lottie Whalen