Lubaina Himid: Lost Voices Of Slavery – Walker Art Gallery – Alice Lenkiewicz

Lubaina Himid Photo P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017


Lubaina Himid’s significant starting point for her exhibition ‘ Meticulous Observations and Naming the Money’, at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool is sculpture by artist, Edmonia Lewis, depicting the American poet, Longfellow. This bust portrays one of America’s best-known cultural figures, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), (a poet who continues to influence artists today). Longfellow was an esteemed American poet who wrote seminal poetry collections and spoke out against slavery.

In this exhibition she gives slaves of the past a voice

Edmonia Lewis specialised in marble statues and busts, executed in the neoclassical style. She is hailed as the first African-American woman to successfully develop a career as a professional sculptress. Lewis spent much of her time working and studying in Rome. Her works are exceptional. My favourite is The Death of Cleopatra. Do have a look at her works and read up on Edmonia’s interesting life. ”While in Rome, Edmonia Lewis continued to express her African-American and Native American heritage. One of her more famous works, “Forever Free”, depicted a powerful image of an African American man and women emerging from the bonds of slavery. Another sculpture Lewis created was called “The Arrow Maker”, which showed a Native American father teaching his daughter how to make an arrow.” The more you read about Edmonia the more interesting it is. A fascinating woman living in very difficult times, standing strong throughout it all and pursuing her career, in many ways not too different from Lubaina Himid.

Lubaina Himid: Meticulous Observations and Naming the Money image © Gareth Jones
Lubaina Himid: Meticulous Observations and Naming the Money image © Gareth Jones

Lubaina Himid is Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. During the past 30 years she has exhibited widely, both in Britain and Internationally, with solo shows that include Tate St Ives, Transmission Glasgow, Chisenhale London, Peg Alston New York and St Jorgens Museum in Bergen, Lubaina represented Britain at the 5th Havana Biennale and has shown work at the Studio Museum in New York, Track 17 in Los Angeles, the Fine Art Academy in Vienna and the Grazer Kunstverein.”

Himid’s work can be found in public collections including Tate, the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Whitworth Art gallery, Arts Council England, Manchester Art Gallery, The International Slavery Museum Liverpool, The Walker Art Gallery, Birmingham City Art Gallery, Bolton Art Gallery, New Hall Cambridge and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery Preston.”

Himid has created an interesting and engaging exhibition that focuses not primarily on herself but on that of contemporary women artists, and lost voices of the past. In this exhibition she gives slaves of the past a voice and two noteworthy black historical figures a renewed energy, bringing them into the forefront. She has also selected artworks by ten women artists including that of Edmonia Lewis from the arts council collection as part of her exhibition. These are exhibited in room nine alongside her own 1987 series of watercolours, scenes from the life of the fascinating leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture. Toussaint’s ”military and political acumen saved the gains of the first Black insurrection in November 1791.”

”The Haitian Revolution was a successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection by self-liberated slaves against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue, now the sovereign nation of Haiti. It began in 1791 and ended in 1804 with the former colony’s independence. It was the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state, which was both free from slavery, and ruled by non-whites and former captives. With the recent increase in Haitian Revolutionary Studies, it is now widely seen as a defining moment in the history of racism in the Atlantic World.The former slaves were able to achieve freedom and equality by political and military force, when they defeated the advances of French, British, and Spanish troops. In 1804, they created the second independent Republic in the western hemisphere.Toussaint Louverture and other black leaders of Saint-Domingue helped to lead the only Atlantic slave society which successfully defeated its oppressors. The former slaves were able to achieve freedom.”

Lubaina Himid: Walker Art Gallery Liverpool Image © Gareth Jones
Lubaina Himid: Walker Art Gallery Liverpool Image © Gareth Jones

I am standing in the sculpture gallery downstairs. The sculpture gallery contains about 120 works of sculpture from the Walker Art Gallery’s permanent collection. The collection takes on new meaning as you enter and see the glass dome now displaying one of Himid’s figures in place of John Gibsons famous Tinted Venus. It is interesting to note that John Gibson was studying under the Italian sculptor, Canova in Rome. Interestingly, Edmonia Lewis also attended Rome under Canova’s tuition. ”Male sculptors were largely sceptical of the talent of female sculptors, and often accused them of not doing their own work.” Himid’s exhibition not only refers to slavery but also to the lack of acknowledgement of female artists.

As you walk through the rooms, you meet Himid’s figures standing beside specific sculptures and paintings. It is cleverly but gracefully done. You look at the figure.They describe to you who they are. You are then drawn towards the painting they stand beside and are then able to make your own connections and interpretations. I admire the paintings at the Walker and Himids observational and educational approach gave a further and important angle on various ways in which to view the works.

Himid’s figure inside the glass dome of the sculpture gallery introduces herself as Rashida. ”They call me Sally. I used to make pots for the whole village. Now I make pots for the garden. I am told they are much admired.” Walk further into the sculpture room, and you come to another figure intermingled at the end of the gallery in front of a sculpture by Edward Onslow Ford titled ‘peace’. My name is Untombinde. They call me Sally. I made tiny bowls for my children. Now children make me cry. But I keep it Secret.

Walk up the stairs to room 11 into British Art 1880 to 1950 and walk through to room 10 and you find further figures standing there. My name is Mandisa. They call me Jenny. I helped a man get well. But his brother sold me. I still know the cure. And by the doorway a figure of a man and his dog. My name is Kontar. They call me Sam. I used to ride elephants. Now I feed dogs. But I have good times.

You then stroll through to room 9, and you will see on display the sculpture of Henry Longfellow by Edmonia Lewis and watercolours by Lubaina Himid. This series of watercolours charts the everyday heroic life of Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture who was at the head of the Haitian Revolution. Lubaina Himid made this series to encourage other people to learn about him. She wanted to show small details of his everyday life in an easy to digest narrative. The watercolours were made over two years. She says ‘it’s an artist’s view for historians to use and to share.’ The watercolours are intriguing.They include text and imagery and are beautifully painted. One of the images tells us that ”because of his knowledge of herbs, Toussaint was made physician to the armies of the king by Biassns-vice-roy of the conquered territories. Did his mother tell him everything he knew?”

In room 9, Himid has also chosen female artists who have work that may seem like familiar moments or things linked to our everyday lives, but as you look more closely and carefully, they reveal themselves to be deep contemplations on the artist’s experiences of life. Himid tells us, ”The beard of Longfellow carved by Edmonia Lewis resonates in a purposeful political dialogue with my paintings of scenes from the life of Toussaint.”Together, I sense that they give strength and courage to the enslaved African people on the painted punch bowl, (exhibited in the room alongside the paintings) around them. Claudette Johnson’s woman in black and Veronica Ryan’s little girls in lamentations in the garden give each other reassurance. Included in this group exhibition are female artists Bridget Riley, John Moores Prize winner Lisa Milroy, Frances Hodgkins, Edmonia Lewis and Claudette Johnson’s Woman in Black.

Lubaina Himid: Walker Art Gallery Liverpool Image © Gareth Jones
Lubaina Himid: Walker Art Gallery Liverpool Image © Gareth Jones

Walk on into room 7., and you come to one figure by Himid, My name is Kimwaki.They call me Sam. I kicked the cooks mut once And now I train the hunting dogs. But I have their friendship.

Walk into the pre-raphaelite room, and you will find Himid’s figure beside ‘Helen of Troy’ by Frederick Sandys. Himid’s figure tells us her name is Alile, but they call her Polly. I painted patterns for tiles, now I paint fences, but I love the fields. The figure also stands next to a carved chair by Augustus Welby Pugin. Looking up the artists of the paintings the figures stand beside in context with Himids work is interesting on many levels and covers a wide area of discussion on identity, race, women, history and feminism.

Walk along, and you will meet another figure beside portrait of William Holman Hunt by Ralph Peacock. Walk further, and there is another figure of a man with a drum in front of the painting, The Triumph of the Innocents by Holman Hunt depicting The Holy family fleeing Egypt, escaping King Herod. I notice there is one black figure in this painting.

Walk through to room 5, 18th-century art. There are two figures by Himid. My name is Aniweta.They call me Sally. Sally seems to be a convenient name during slavery that can be applied liberally to women slaves. My cups were used in rituals. Now the ceremonies are lost. But I can remember the order. Here, we are made aware of how belief systems have been torn apart by slavery. The figure stands in front of a portrait of a boy, probably James Colinson, 1767 by George Romney. Why here? For the first time, we have a portrait without a secure identity, but his portrait is still exhibited.

The next figure tells us her name is Grethal but they call me Polly. I painted altars; now I paint signs. But I have the sunsets. Walk through to room 4. Next, to the painting, The Betrothed, (School of Rembrandt), we have another figure called Polly. My name is Lubajna.They call me Polly. I used to paint patterns to give to my friends. Now I paint dummy boards. But they are good company. We are now losing the identity of each person as they are all called the same. It is clever the way Himid does this and creates confusion in order to allow the viewer the experience of understanding how loss of identity is an important aspect of this exhibition.

Continue into room 3. 17th-century European art. Meet Nakati. They call me John. I used to make masks. Now my shoes are worn by kings, but I have the colour. Meet Danladi. He is also called John. He used to make carvings for the queen. Now he makes clogs for the farmlands. But he has his standards. He stands beside the painting ‘Rising of Lazarus’ by studio of Antonio Bestra.

Walk through to room 2. Medieval and Renaissance art. Here you will hear an audio installation based on the figures. You will meet Yola. They call me Sissie. I used to make fertility dolls. Now I make animals for Noah’s ark.They multiply. She stands in front of the painting, ‘The Enchantment of Christ’ by Ippolito Scarsella. Notice in this painting, there is a black Christ. Hooray! You will also meet Anika.They call me Sissie.I used to make boxes for jewels. Now I make boxes for children. But at least they are used. You will also meet Jabulani. They call me Dan. I used to be a king, now I watch and play. But I have my ring. Meet Musenda. They call me Dan. I used to commemorate sacred events. Now I play at parties. But I have their thanks. Dan is standing in front of ‘The Triumph of Fortitude’, a woven tapestry from 1525, a biblical scene. School of Brussels. The figures are travelling far and wide!

Walk through to Room 1, North European Art, Henry V111 room. Next to the painting of Sir George Delves and his wife by the British School. Meet Olusade. They call me Jenny. I used to cure diseases. Now I make tea. But I am never ill. It is evident that so many skills went missing and were ignored as a result of slavery. Meet Ngosa. She is also called Jenny. I used to know the names of flowers. But these are new. I’ll learn them soon. Jenny is a woman pulled away from her own environment and the things she knows and loves.

The exhibition is interesting from many angles. It is fascinating and educational. The exhibition is about the lost voices of slavery and racism. Himid also draws our attention to the lost voices of female artists in particular that of Edmonia Lewis and how women express themselves through their art. Following the figures throughout the exhibition will provide an educational art tour of international slavery in line with the history of art.

The full installation Naming the Money was gifted by the artist to the International Slavery Museum

”The full installation Naming the Money was gifted by the artist to the International Slavery Museum. It addresses how Europe’s wealthy classes spent their money and flaunted their power in the 18th and 19th centuries, by using enslaved African men and women. The highly individual sculptural figures, each with their own profession and life-story, demonstrate how enslavement was disguised and glamorised. Visitors to the Walker will find groups of these figures positioned around the gallery in configurations determined by the artist.”

This is a powerful new exhibition by 2017 Turner Prize nominee Lubaina Himid MBE, Lubaina Himid: Meticulous Observations and Naming the Money features works selected by Lubaina from the Arts Council Collection, along with 20 figures from her major installation, Naming the Money.

”Lubaina Himid MBE is a contemporary African artist and Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire in the north west of England. Her art focuses on themes of cultural history and reclaiming identities.”

There are free introductory tours of this exhibition on 12th, 30th, January 27th February and 13th March at 1 pm in room 9. Do call the gallery first to check and confirm.

Review by Alice Lenkiewicz Lead Photo: © P C Robinson Artlyst 2017