Lubaina Himid: Le Rodeur: The Lock, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 72 by 96 inches; at Modern Art Oxford.

Zanzibar-born British artist, curator, and writer Lubaina Himid has been an important voice on issues of race, gender, identity, and representation in Britain for the past thirty years. She came to prominence in the 1980s as a member of the British Black Arts Movement—which sought to highlight concerns about racial prejudice and the postcolonial legacy—and as a curator of shows giving greater visibility to fellow black diaspora artists, particularly women. As an artist, Himid is known primarily for her painting and installation art. This winter saw the opening of two institutional shows devoted to her artwork: “Navigation Charts” at Spike Island in Bristol and “Invisible Strategies” at Modern Art Oxford.

At Spike Island, the undoubted highlight was the installation Naming the Money (2004), which comprises one hundred life-size painted wooden cutouts of figures wearing colorful hats and garments. Although fictional, these characters are based on Himid’s historical research and represent the African slaves who were put to work in various roles (as dancers, drummers, mapmakers, ceramists) in the royal courts of eighteenth-century Europe. Tales of uprooting and resilience are told in individual texts displayed on the back of the figures—e.g., “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”—and narrated in a soundtrack that also contains musical interludes. By placing her figures center stage and giving them distinct identities, Himid emphasizes the characters’ individuality and humanity, countering the common portrayal of slaves in Western art history as exotic status symbols for wealthy masters. 

Also at Spike Island was Drowned Orchard: Secret Boatyard (2014), an installation made up of sixteen brightly colored wooden planks propped against one wall in the curving manner of a ship’s hull. Hand-painted with images of fruits, plants, and people, these planks evoke themes of labor and migration, as well as the crammed slave ships that set out on perilous journeys from the artist’s birthplace, which was once East Africa’s main slave-trading port.

The ambivalent motif of the sea as a source of both escape and danger threads through Himid’s two exhibitions. In the Modern Art Oxford presentation—on view through April 30—it is found in two unsettling paintings from her series “Le Rodeur” (2016–), which takes its title from a nineteenth-century French slave ship whose captain had a large number of his forced passengers thrown overboard after they contracted an illness that made them blind and therefore unsellable. The paintings on view depict groups of black people with lifeless eyes in impersonal interiors. The sea appears as a menacing presence seen through windows, while strips of geometric abstraction symbolize, according to comments Himid made at the press preview, the incomprehensible horror of the slaves’ murder. 

Himid’s works, while political and critical, frequently express humor and joy. The Oxford show, for instance, includes an exuberant installation, Freedom and Change (1984), that wittily plays on Picasso’s canonical 1922 painting Two Women Running on the Beach, replacing his white protagonists with black ones. Kicking sand at two white mens’ heads shown as cutouts to the left of the painting, the women are yanked forward by four cutout dogs to the right, as if being pulled out of the conventional modernist narrative.

Himid’s practice is rife with such bold revisions. One room in Oxford is devoted to pieces from a satirical dinner service consisting of ceramics she found in Lancaster and painted with images about the history of slavery in the region (Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, 2007) and to a series in which she draws attention to conscious or unwitting racial bias and stereotyping through painterly amendments to newspaper spreads (“Negative Positives,” 2007–). Such works, expressed with visual economy and a lush palette, feel fresh and powerful; amid the resurgent nationalism in the West, their investigations of racism and oppression resonate loudly.