Modern Art Oxford
30th April 2017
In 1819, the crew of Le Rodeur—a slave ship sailing from Bonny in Africa—were struck down by an onboard disease. The affliction (a disease of the eyes) also affected the slaves on board. Unwilling to undertake the expenditure of unusable slaves and in a bid to penny-pinch, the Captain threw thirty-six blind slaves overboard.
Le Rodeur is the title of a new piece by artist Lubaina Himid. The large, bright canvas shows a group of painted figures; young black men and women (maybe a family, maybe friends, one with the face of a duck), in a block-colour modern room, a single window looking out onto a grey ocean. The juxtaposition of title and image—title recollecting an ignored and abhorrent past and image presenting a slightly abstract portrayal of contemporary life—is perhaps an insight into the broader themes at work in the exhibition. Reminding, not remembering: it is a rebuke, albeit a gentle one, recalling a whole world of forgotten horror whilst looking to wider questions of modern day black identity, within or outside of the art world.
Lubaina Himid’s ‘Invisible Strategies’ is the first full exhibition to follow Modern Art Oxford’s commemorative year-long Kaleidoscope project. Held in collaboration with Spike Island, Bristol and Nottingham Contemporary, Himid’s show at MAO is her first in 25 years, showcasing work old and new. Born in Zanzibar in 1954 and raised in the U.K., Himid’s work negotiates a history of black identity and creative disregard in contrast to, and alongside, a Western history of art. Himid sees herself in an explicitly political light; an often featured soundbite is her self-description as a “political strategist” using “visual language” as opposed to an artist. Her works are personal as well as political: the aforementioned Le Rodeur is just one of many to feature snapshots of the ocean – Himid cannot swim, and has a deep fear of the water.
There’s a liminality to these flat, two-dimensional representations. This is perhaps most explicit in the sea-scapes, a sense of being physically ‘in-between’ the historical and the contemporary. In Le Rodeur the sea is distanced: kept at bay by walls, colour, architecture. But it remains ever (ominously) present, regardless of the constructed defences, an allusion to a past so heavy it could, at any moment, surge and re-engulf the present. These motifs of past and progression are similarly explored in the giant canvas piece heading up the exhibition. Entitled Freedom and Change (1984), the work re-imagines Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach (The race) (1922). Picasso—as an artist expressly influenced (and sometimes problematically so) by different cultures—makes an interesting choice for reappraisal. Two Women Running on the Beach was part of his marked return to neo-classicism, the mythological Women in White painted at a similar time (1923). In Himid’s translation of his piece, we see Picasso’s free-breasted white women become two black women, fully clothed in geometric garments. The women run from lolling-tongued heads, one grasping the reins of a pack of fiercely snapping dogs. Here the investigation into identity and history becomes intertwined with artistic influence and possession, the bold humour of re-translating Picasso. Pattern is the tool of choice—Himid has called it a “secret language”—and its use as such is repeated frequently throughout the show.
The exhibition is spread throughout two floors. Larger paintings and sculptures adorn the Upper and Middle Galleries, and smaller pieces—newspaper clippings and ceramics—are scattered about the Piper Gallery. One such project, Negative Positives, features painting upon cuttings of old Guardian newspapers, ongoing from 2007 (though those displayed in the gallery are almost exclusively from between April to September 2007). Negative Positives draws attention to the tacit—if not racist, then certainly uncomfortable—language used in describing sport and entertainment stars for the sake of catchy headlines and weak puns. Himid paints on the paper, cartoonish strokes depicting snakes, eyes, tennis balls. Venomous Venus, Snakey Serena. Laura Cummings, reviewing for The Guardian , classed the project as “basic consciousness-raising”; didactic in comparison to the larger paintings in the previous galleries. This seems slightly unwarranted. Emily Nussbaum, in a recent essay in the New Yorker , remonstrated on how jokes and humour normalise that which usually would—and should—be probed and scrutinised. This becomes the formula behind accepting an offensive headline, or a President. Yet the converse is also true: a cartoon, striking in its universality of expression, can—with a single glance—reveal tacit prejudices, lying unnoticed beneath a seemingly placid surface. A snake slithering around Man City’s Micah Richards similarly plays with malign placidity, drawing attention to the uncomfortable language of newspaper humour, whilst simultaneously being aesthetically pleasing and funny.
At the back of the Piper Gallery is a work commissioned by the Lancashire Museums in 2007. Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service is a table set of painted ceramic dishes: an 100 piece dinner service, each piece (jugs, plates, tureens etc.) painted upon with patterns and figures. Reminiscent of satirical caricatures (à la James Gillray)—vibrant pomposity of colour, snub faces of superiority and conceit—the work admonishes and recalls figures of colonialism, alongside the lost faces of innumerous black slaves. Whimsical? A bit. But whimsy can be a wily instrument. An overt whimsy—such as living croquet game in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland—throws sharp relief on pre-existing injustices (in Alice in Wonderland, bourgeois games and monarchic hierarchies; in Himid’s piece, mapping the industries of colonialism: sugar, china, tobacco, cotton, mahogany)
Humour and play draw attention to stereotypes without expressly teaching a ‘lesson’. Placed within a framework of artistic practice, they can allude to wider questions of authenticity and ownership, such as in Freedom and Change. Humour is interspersed throughout the exhibition, from small surreal quirks to the more explicit satire. It challenges the established politics of memory: bright visibility to conquer a heritage of silence.
Shoshana Kessler  is an editor and publisher at Hurst Street Press.