Lubaina Himid wants you to feel like an actor, a performer on the stage set of this exhibition. It’s a nice idea, but actors are fed lines to repeat, they play roles, they do as they’re directed. Instead, this show works best when it forces you to question, confront and undermine the ideas it presents, not perform them.
Himid – Turner Prize-winner and one of the most quietly influential artists working in the UK today – helps you along with questions painted across the walls: ‘what does love sound like?’, ‘what are monuments for?’, and most importantly ‘we live in clothes, we live in buildings – do they fit us?’ It sets you up for an exhibition that makes you question, well, everything.
Earlier paintings here show imaginary buildings that twist and morph impossibly, windows that look out onto geometric patterns, houses filled with simple furniture. It feels like Himid imagining what life would be like if she was her own architect, if she could build her own environment instead of living in one made by an uncaring society.
There are jelly moulds covered in African fabric patterns and Black faces, a wagon painted with fish, a wave represented by undulating planks of wood: it’s Himid reshaping her world, and encouraging you to question yours. It’s brilliant, clever, vibrant and often very beautiful.
It’s brilliant, clever, vibrant and often very beautiful
Far less good are the sound installations dotted around the space. Do you need a voice reading out the word ‘blue’ in different languages to understand that you’re looking at a blue painting? Do you need the sound of waves to tell you that the wave-shaped thing you’re looking at is wave-shaped? In a show all about asking questions, it just feels too didactic and patronising.
Even worse is the final work in the show, a bike shelter/smoking area you can’t enter, with the sound of harpsichord music and latin jazz pumped through the space. It’s a genuinely awful bit of installation art; pointless, ugly and tacked-on.
But these are just low lows in a show with some very high highs, with Himid’s big canvases as the star. Her brightly coloured, flat-perspective paintings have had a huge impact on young artists working today, and they’re great. The newest works are especially good, all filled with perfectly dressed black men in white masks, and tailors and architects.
And that’s what Himid’s art is asking you to be, really. Not an actor, no, but a tailor, an architect: a designer of your own world.