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The Art of Innocent Provocation

Lubaina Himid has been producing her distinctive artwork for over four decades and this exhibition brings much of it together to give the viewer a true perspective of her journey from a pivotal role in the British Black Arts movement in the 80s, her recent Turner Prize win, and up to the present day, writes Michael Holland. 

The bright, vibrant colours that fill her work from 1981 to 2021 offer up a feeling of overarching joy, of a life lived with happiness and smiles, but a closer reading reveals 40 years of driving home a message of how centuries of Britain’s empire-building changed the lives of millions.

Le Rodeur is a slave ship that had 39 of its ‘cargo’ thrown overboard to die, knowing they could be claimed on insurance, yet it appears in a series of innocent paintings that only those who know the story will understand exactly what the paintings mean. Trading, barter and water all appear as tacit themes throughout her career, depicting the horrors of the slave trade, though many viewers will not pick up on this.

A Fashionable Marriage, 1986 installation view, 2017 © Nottingham Contemporary Photo: Andy Keate

Besides paintings there are models of stylised jelly moulds that the press release explains are to ‘celebrate the contributions of the African diaspora’; wooden cut-outs depicting ‘the moral corruption of the elite’(A Fashionable Marriage), and sound installations: Old Boat/New Money is the sounds of the sea flowing over a wooden wave-like structure; Naming the Money has the artist narrating the former free lives of 100 African slaves and the work they were made to do in European households. All very powerful works that make you stop and think.

The exhibition throws up more questions than answers, which is Himid’s intention. We are left wondering if we have read the artworks correctly, though aware that white privilege still needs to be talked about no matter how awkward some people find it. 

Himid herself says, “There’s something that I’m trying to provoke you into being part of changing.” 

Tate Modern until July 3rd. Times: Daily 10am – 8pm. Admission: £16.


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