Lubaina Himid and the power of appropriation art

Posted on: February 16, 2017 by

There is a very intriguing exhibition on at the moment at Modern Art Oxford featuring the artist Lubaina Himid. She makes political, opinionated and at times furious pieces in various media, from sculpture to canvas to pottery. The show is called Invisible Strategies and spans work going back to the artist’s early days in the 1980s to pieces created just last year. The Guardian has referred to her work – and this exhibition in particular – as speaking to ‘Trump times’ and, while this may be true (whatever that term might mean), it is right to say that Himid’s social commentary goes far beyond the problems of the present. She investigates the horrors of eighteenth-century slavery and considers the prejudices within present-day portrayals of black celebrities, and she points a finger at all of us.

There is much to be said about this work which the exhibition curators define as ‘appropriation art’. While we have often seen this term used to describe contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Richard Prince (the latter testified in court that he doesn’t “really have a message” when making his art: see p 14 in the link), it is indisputably more powerful when employed by an artist with a social message. This is hardly art for art’s sake; this is art with a weapon. And the weapon is being used to attack the establishment (the art establishment, the political establishment, the media establishment and any other establishment you can think of).

Perhaps most interesting – and the reason why I have included this review on the blog – is that Himid uses art from other sources – Wedgwood porcelain, newspapers, works by Modern masters – as the basis from which to make her point. In ‘Negative Positives’ she critiques images used by the media in full newspaper pages. In ‘The Bone in the China’ she likens the mania for collecting antiquities in early modern Europe to the exploitation of slaves from Africa. And, most impactful of all (because it is the first work you see in the exhibition) is the use of the image by Picasso of two rounded women running by the seaside, hands clasped in celebration of some newfound liberty: Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) from 1922. Himid’s work has placed black women as the protagonists, and changed the medium to a hanging pink curtain. One wonders what Picasso himself, no stranger to re-appropriation himself, would have thought. Probably he would have liked it very much.

Pablo Picasso, Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922); Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change (1984), photograph by the author.

I bring out these particular themes and issues with a view to exploring them (and others from contemporary art exhibitions across the UK and abroad) more fully in our upcoming Diploma in Intellectual Property and Collections course, which will be running in London on 12-14 June 2017. Art is an ever-changing phenomenon and thus brings with it new and unforeseen challenges. The law, as has been said, often plays catch-up to the changes made possible by technology and differing modes of expression. Here with Lubaina Himid we have a great example of how new forms of art require a re-imagining of the legal rules that govern creative expression.