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TALK: 2017 Turner Prize Winner Lubaina Himid & Claudette Johnson

Muddy’s Amy McCranor went along to hear two pioneers of black British art discuss their work and inspirations at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum

In Conversation: Claudette Johnson,(left) and Lubaina Himid (right) at Rugby Art Gallery & Museum. Photos courtesy of RAGM

If you haven’t already seen Rugby Art Gallery & Museum’s About Face exhibition it’s definitely worth checking out before it ends on Sat June 16!

Not only does it include loans from the National Portrait Gallery and The Lowry, but the museum’s first display of striking newly-acquired work, Standing Figure by Claudette Johnson, together with 2017 Turner Prize Winner Lubaina Himid’s colourful Men in Drawers series (Man in Paper Drawer and Man in Pencil Drawer).


Lubaina Himid (left) and Claudette Johnson

When speaking of representation and community, we often focus on solidarity, and by virtue, similarity; but in doing so we risk overlooking the rich tapestry of differences shared by a group. When listening to artists Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson describe their inspiration, work and careers, this becomes especially evident.

Himid (the 2017 Turner Prize winner) and Johnson met at a conference for black students in 1982, while studying Theatre Design and Fine Art, respectively. Describing the experience ‘’as rich a cultural landscape as you could ever find’’, the women found common ground and encouragement in the differences of the attendee’s: musicians, designers, writers, photographers, dancers. Feeling like black artists could no longer be dismissed, they began to hone their style, inspirations and politics despite facing challenges – in Johnson’s case, being the only black student in her year at Wolverhampton Poly.

Claudette Johnson with Standing Figure, 2017. Part of a new series of work developed for a show at Hollybush Gardens last year.

Disenchanted by never seeing anything of herself in art, Johnson decided to make black women her subject, working on large scale to gain the respect of her tutors. Inspired by American artists using caricatures to subvert and confront historic racism and stereotypes, she became unafraid of the “ugly”: distortion, discomfort, idea’s that have held black people back. In turn, she celebrated black women in their existence – their “hijacked” sexuality, how they occupy space on the canvas and inhabit their own worlds.

After citing Picasso as both an inspiration and a catalyst for her work, another classical reference that could be drawn is that of African-American Edmonia Lewis, a force-of-nature sculptor working in the latter half of the 1800’s. The visceral romance of Johnson’s subjects is heightened by her intuitive style, working her surfaces with leather, smoke, wool and paper when necessary, and her considered mark-making. Describing this process as ‘’saying a lot with as little as possible’’, and despite her humble nature, the respect and admiration for the women to whom she has devoted her career is palpable.

Working with a considerably more eclectic style, Himid’s theatre background sparked an extensive inter-disciplinary body of work when she found the world of stage and curtain politically limiting. Indeed, it was the restaurant business where she found inspiration and opportunity to stage real human drama and chance encounter.

Lubaina Himid with her Men in Drawers series (Man in Paper Drawer and Man in Pencil Drawer)

Creating mixed-media pieces intended to be treated as furniture of the space, she found her love for interaction and the relationship with the audience; but as an active energy, constantly moving and changing the work to create a different ‘show’. Also working as a teacher and curator, Himid’s motivation is exhaustless as it is fed by everyday nuance, past and place, taking a multitude of forms. Micro paintings quietly adorn the National Trust property, Knole House in Sevenoaks celebrating the untold life of laundry maid Grace Robinson. Himid is one of six contemporary artists featured in new exhibition, A Woman’s Place, running until Nov 4, 2018. Meanwhile Himid’s striking large-scale signature cut outs add dynamism and activism to gallery space.

Himid says the build-up to and the winning of the Turner Prize was crazy. In conversation with Johnson and the audience, she recalls many black women before her to have been nominated but who never won, and so didn’t allow herself to be too hopeful – but when she began to receive recognition and encouragement from strangers, her work became “bolder” and “riskier”.

Both artists went on to answer questions on their backgrounds and the role of art in their childhoods – for Johnson, constantly drawing and painting growing up; and the influence of her textile designer-mother on Himid’s appreciation of the intersection between art and object.

Against the background of Rugby Art Gallery and Museum’s current About Face exhibition, we gain an intimate glimpse of two contemporaries sharing common ground in their experiences of the world and their place in it, but as a testament to them as artists, the great contrast in the work produced as a result. From eclectic to visceral, Himid and Johnson paint a portrait of solidarity, appreciation and individuality in community and the world of art.

For more information about About Face see here: rugby 

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