Dreaming has a share in history: Modernism's reinvention in the art of Lubainia Himid

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Over the course of a career spanning several decades Lubaina Himid has produced an extraordinary body of work in a variety of media in which the primacy of painting has remained to the fore. The use of colour, installation and collage in a re-address to history, to art history, to monuments, to time, to memory and to visibility, amongst other themes, are central to Himid's practices as an artist. In particular her critical engagement with canonical western art histories and their uneven relationships with Africa have been core concerns of her practice as both an artist and a curator. Writing eloquently about Himid's 1992 exhibition Revenge: A Masque in Five Tableaux, Griselda Pollock has suggested that Himid's strategies of 'understanding historically' include the 'tactical insertion of the present into a historical field by means of a critical quotation from art's histories' in order 'to signify the historical formation of the present.' Across several decades of artistic practice in which she uses the quintessentially modernist medium of painting as her main tool, Himid wrests it from its traditional function as an instrument for white western canon formation and re-deploys it in a dialogical relation to its origins. Such a Benjaminian concept of history - as a constellation between past, present and future in which re-interrogating the past in the present might produce the conditions for change in the future - is one of the enduring qualities of Himid's practice as an artist and will be explored further in this essay. A particular focus will be on her on-going series of paintings on paper which take their inspiration from East African 'Kangas', decorative printed textiles, often containing an elliptical motto or proverb and most often worn across the body by women. Each of Himid's first iteration of 'Kangas' are also accompanied by a montaged female 'owner'. The most recent iteration, 'New Kangas from the Archive' were produced on commission in 2016. Each one is painted again with a short aphorism but this time explicitly inspired by Walter Benjamin's unfinished Arcades Project. My essay will reflect on Himid's particular approach to history in relation to Benjamin's own approach to his project as 'literary montage' - a method that Esther Leslie has compared with 'dream interpretation' in which 'images, vivid, fragmentary, intense but not understood until later, until worked over, [are] worked back into narrative and patterns of causation, then made useful'. My essay will argue that the conjunctural practices of Himid's work are a manifest way of thinking through some of the issues raised in Hall's article.
Original languageEnglish
JournalArt History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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