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Lubaina Himid

about the role of museums, sources of inspiration and her latest exhibition

Lubaina Himid

Artist Lubaina Himid currently shows her work in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Through her work, she, among other issues, wants to discuss forgotten histories, feminism, colonialism, and institutional invisibility. Ammodo talked to the artist about fabrics, the role of museums and what empowers and inspires her.


For the exhibition, you researched the museum collection of the Frans Hals Museum. Was there anything that surprised or stunned you?

With the paintings from the painter Frans Hals, I couldn’t quite make a connection. What I recognized was his love of painting fabric: hence the conversation I’m making is with the damasks from the museum collection. That was a surprise for me. The damasks are not often on show, but they seemed to be such an important part of the history of Haarlem. I’m very interested in archives and collections and sometimes it’s the textile pieces in the collection, that are – not neglected in a conservational way – but slightly neglected in a sort of importance. People don’t know how to show it, how to make them relevant. So, I like it very much when I’m able to do that.
These textile pieces helped me decide on the new work that I made for this exhibition. I decided to use Dutch cloth, but really different kinds of Dutch cloths than the damasks: the African fabrics I used for The Grab Test (2019) are in fact made in Holland. This fabric brings up all those connections between The Netherlands and the Westcoast of Africa. It brings up all the history of trading: trading in people and trading in goods. Besides, it allows me to say some things about people that have migrated here, in very recent times and of course the people that migrated here from catholic countries centuries ago. By using these fabrics I can have that subtle conversation about migration and the creation of wealth, and one’s attitude and feelings towards people that migrate from one place to another. What does that mean? What did it mean then, what does it mean now? I like very much the fact that here in HAL you can see the work through the window, so truly everybody can engage with it and these questions.

Yes this immediately stroke me when I arrived at the museum. The exhibition becomes very public because of that.

Yes indeed. In Britain most of the museums are free. But here, that’s different. It’s really only Britain that somehow manages this. Well, people just demand it. Because we say as citizens: these artefacts are ours. If they’re owned by a state museum, then they’re owned by the people and we kind of have the right to see them for free. So I’m really glad you can see my work through the window.

How does your new work relate to your older work, for example, (2002)?

Well, the older work that’s on show at the Frans Hals has all its conversations around fabric and textile: the ten Naming the Money (2004) figures are all dressed in very elaborate clothes, and there is also a small series, called Collars and Cuffs (2018), which are relating to Dutch lace – before I was thinking about Frans Hals. So, all of the connections I make are really through fabric and cotton. Sometimes stories are literally woven into the textile. These can also be stories from the histories of Great Britain and the Netherlands, that are not always clearly visible. All my work is about bringing those forgotten stories to the surface and having important conversations about them.

Interesting that a material can do that.

Yes! It can because people are not afraid of coming near or engaging with that. Because it’s so normal and every day. It’s a bit old fashioned: we don’t all have tablecloths, but we all know what a tablecloth is. Or curtains, we know what those are. And so, everyone can come into the conversation. I find if people feel the confidence that they cán come into the conversation, they don’t get afraid when they know there are other levels to it. They feel they have something to offer: either an opinion or they are not afraid to say: I didn’t know that. Whereas sometimes, if you make an art work in a different way, people are afraid to ask questions, they don’t want to look stupid. In my opinion, there is no way you can look stupid. With my work, if you really want to get into the conversation and discuss the politics, you can, but if you don’t want to, you can just enjoy it.

Is it important that many people see your work?

Well it is, the audience is incredibly important. I think most artists would like people to see their work. Of course, my art ‘works’ if there isn’t an audience, but that audience is nevertheless important. To perhaps begin to think and talk a bit more about forgotten histories. Because my work in a way, especially pieces like The Grab Test itself, is a kind of theatrical device where I have set the stage, and the audience is part of the play. So the visitors arrive, and immediately become part of it. They are in it.  They finish the work. That ability for visitors to use the exhibition space to come together and have a conversation is important to me.

What do you hope your exhibition will achieve?

Someone maybe remembers a tablecloth that their grandma had, when that person looks at the damasks. I hope that people approach my work from all kinds of different directions. That they bring their own lives to it.

Is there any change in the art world that annoys you or makes you happy?

Well, I mean, I would say the art world would be a better place if museum and curators were able to understand that the artist needs care. I think museums and curators are very good in taking care of the artworks, but they don’t always take care of the young, living artists. They can’t always afford it, and funding is always very difficult, but I think, perhaps if they were able to give more opportunities to less well-known artists, take risks sometimes in that way, that it would be better. It is not a complaint, just the museum is an institution that can give emerging artists an opportunity. Of course, commercial galleries can’t do that until they know an artist’s success is a certainty. Although these days, it’s quite often that the commercial places are taking the risks, and the museums are playing safe. So, I would say: take a few more risks, with less well-known artists, and try to fund those less well-known artists as much as you can. If you are on your own as an artist, you don’t have assistants, you don’t have a gallery – it’s hard. And sometimes I think the big institutions don’t realize that. Because they just think: ‘oh flaky artists…’ But they’re not. Sometimes they’re actually quite frightened. They just need a bit of care. [smiles]

What empowers you, or what inspires you?

I’m always having conversations with multiple artists at a time. Those are either the ones that I teach, or my artist friends, or the ones I work with. I guess being with people who are willing to risk things empowers me. In a way, I think if I didn’t talk to other artists I wouldn’t be as brave as I am now. So they definitely inspire me. And I guess literature is important to me, although I read much less than I used to do. Some African American writers and their essays, poems and novels really impressed me. For example, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens (1983) by Alice Walker is a very beautiful celebration of the ordinary. It’s about a woman that’s being exploited by her employer but still finds joy in the beauty of her garden and flowers. I think that ability is miraculous. Then there’s the author Toni Cade Bambara, who is exquisite in writing about madness. She wrote a marvellous – very difficult, but very marvellous – book, called The Salt Eaters (1980). That’s worth reading as well, it inspired me a lot. Then the poems of Essex Hamphill, who is an African American gay poet, are very erotic but utterly beautiful. Right now I’m reading lots about sound. I met an artist – she made the sound piece for this exhibition – a Polish artist called Magda Stawarska-Beavan. We talk a lot about listening and the difference between what a city sounds like if you know it well, and what it sounds like if you’ve never been there. All her work is centred around that. Because of her, I find myself hearing and listening differently, which I’ve never done before. I was always totally focussed on viewing. She has a real understanding of it and taught me that.

What are your plans for the future?

For the last two years, I did a lot of installing, showing and travelling. For the next year, I’m merely trying to take the time to make a lot of new work. I want to be ‘making’ again.


Photos: Florian Braakman

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