Just when we thought the Turner Prize was getting a bit repetitive, a trifle boring, we get a result to shake things up. Perhaps seismically. For the first time in a long time (aside from the relentlessly predictable cycle of auction records) contemporary art has elbowed its way back onto the front pages — and thrillingly.
This year’s winner is Lubaina Himid. Remember the name.
Himid was born on the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, in 1954. At 63, she is not only the oldest ever winner by almost decade, as well the oldest ever nominee, but also the first woman of color to take the prize. (For the men, Chris Ofili won in 1998, quickly followed in 1999 by Steve McQueen. Both are now in their late 40s.)
And what’s more, unlike the other three artists on this year’s shortlist, Himid doesn’t work and live in London, or any other European capital. No, she lives and works in Preston, Lancashire, where she’s a professor of contemporary art at the local university. (The local paper, the Lancashire Evening Post, will surely make a big splash of it.)
All of this — and much else besides — makes her newsworthy. And then, of course, there is her art, which celebrates black creativity. In another startling break from tradition, the major piece she’s exhibiting at the Turner Prize Show at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull is over 30 years old. Some art critics are likely to tut-tut a bit and question how much the rules appear to have been relaxed: not just older artists now, but old work too. (As I remember it, the Turner Prize used to be expressly about new and contemporary work.)
Himid’s big piece is an exuberant installation, “A Fashionable Marriage” (1986), inspired by the paintings of the English satirist William Hogarth’s “Marriage A-la-Mode” (1743-45). Himid, a former set designer, created a series of theatrical, life-size plywood figures, satirizing the politics and art of the 1980s. The figures preen, gawp and guffaw across a raised stage. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are the feted (not to say fated) lovers as the countess and the lawyer Silvertongue.
In a more recent piece, “Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service” (2007), a dinner set has been repainted to tell the story of slavery. This time, Himid drew inspiration from the late 18th-century English caricaturists James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, decorating glazed crockery — plates, jugs, tureens — with a procession of fat country squires, their complaining wives and a retinue of black servants and slaves.
In another series, “Negative Positives: The Guardian Archive” (2007-17), she has continued to rework old covers of the Guardian newspaper to show that, in her view, they are guilty of black stereotyping. In all probability, she herself will now make the front page of the paper.
At the opening of the Turner Prize show in September, the director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson, spoke of the increased interest in the British black art movement of the 1980s. He felt those artists’ contributions had not been “recognized as a key aspect of the story of art at the time. Yet increasingly, there is a widespread acceptance that the ’80s black art movement ushered in a lot of what we see today.” By awarding this year’s prize to Himid, the jury seems to be retroactively recognizing its importance.
According to a statement, they praised Himid for “her uncompromising tackling of issues including colonial history and how racism persists today.” They admired her expansive and exuberant approach to painting, which combines satire and a sense of theater. The jury also acknowledged her role as an influential curator and educator who continues to speak urgently to the moment.