Black Woman Time Now: Lubaina Himid MBE speaks to Michaela Yearwood-Dan
In 1982 Lubaina Himid MBE enrolled at the Royal College of Art with a plan: to ‘tip the British art world upside down.’ Within a year she’d already organised two of three London shows she curated in the mid 1980s, which have since come to be known as pivotal exhibitions in the history of British contemporary art.
Foregrounding voices neglected by both the Feminist art and the male-dominated Black arts movements, the exhibitions – Five Black Women at the Africa Centre (1983), Black Women Time Now at Battersea Arts Centre (1983–4) and The Thin Black Line at the ICA (1985) – sounded the arrival of a generation of radical, young Black and Asian women artists intent on ‘countering the racism of the art world, which makes it impossible to exhibit without labels.’
During the period of 1981 to ’87, Himid was living in Elspeth Road, Battersea, just around the corner from Battersea Arts Centre. Having produced the set design for Paulette Randall’s play Fishing (1982), directed by Talawa Theatre Company’s founder Yvonne Brewster OBE, Himid was invited to contribute to Brewster’s festival celebrating black women’s creativity at BAC in the late autumn of 1983.
The ‘Black Woman Time Now’ festival offered audiences a full programme of theatre, visual art, film screenings, discussions, music performances and workshops. The art exhibition, curated by Himid, featured artworks by fifteen women: Houria Niati, Veronica Ryan, Claudette Johnson, Sonia Boyce, Chila Burman, Jean Campbell, Andrea Telman, Ingrid Pollard, Margaret Cooper, Mumtaz Karimjee, Elizabeth Eugene, Leslee Wills, Cherry Lawrence, Lubaina Himid and Brenda Agard. It took place in the space next to the bar on the first floor. Small exhibitions regularly happened here but nothing quite like this, Himid told us.
Alongside the other artists, Himid presented her artwork We Will Be (1983), a cut-out female figure collaged with images of (mostly male) symbols of cultural and political liberation such as Bob Marley and Nelson Mandela, covered with the words:
WE WILL BE WHO WE WANT / WHERE WE WANT / WITH WHOM WE WANT / IN THE WAY THAT WE WANT / WHEN WE WANT/ AND THE TIME IS NOW/ AND THE PLACE IS HERE / AND THERE AND/ HERE AND THERE / AND HERE/ NOW NOW/ NOW
38 years on, Tooting-born painter Michaela Yearwood-Dan, who is around the same age Himid was at the time of Black Woman Time Now, spoke to Lubaina Himid MBE about the exhibition, the context from which it arose, and why it remains relevant today.
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: From what I understand, the intention behind Black Woman Time Now was to join the conversation focusing on Black practitioners that was being had at that time in the British arts landscape, but through the lens and voice of Black women. What challenges did you face back then trying to ensure this female voice was being nurtured within and amongst the Black arts movement?
Lubaina Himid: The challenges then were the same challenges that we face today really. No one from the wider community took us particularly seriously. Most men were happy to continue to conveniently believe in our stereotypical roles as either “easy” or “matriarchal.” We were useful as long as we were supportive and kept away from the feminist narrative.
Yvonne Brewster made strenuous efforts to establish links between performers, visual artists and writers who then went on to make visible the cultural contribution of women of colour.
MYD: The line-up for the show was incredible – I’m saddened that I never got to see it – but if you could go back in time what other artist would you have invited to be in the exhibition?
LH: I have never regretted leaving anyone out because I firmly believed I would go on making exhibitions for years to come. The participants reflected the women who at the time were currently making artwork, willing to identify as Black, were up for talking to each other and who were brave enough to show their work.
MYD: The title Black Woman Time Now remains poignant. If you were to curate a show under the same title now, how would you approach things differently? Do you think there’s been much change in the recognition of nuanced subject matters being accepted for black women in a contemporary creative landscape?
LH: If I was to make a show called BWTN now I would make sure that the venue was spectacular, that the staff were caring and supportive, that the funds were sufficient to cover artists’ fees, new commissions, travel, accommodation, shipping and several public programme events. I would make sure there was money for the best PR firm to be hired and that there was documentation of the show, a weighty catalogue with essays by experts, and last but not least I’d probably insist on a fee for myself, even if I ploughed it back into the project.
My show Carte De Visite (Dec 2015 – Jan 2016) at Hollybush Gardens probably has come nearest to achieving its aims of giving voice to artists who wished to say more than the obvious messages they had been previously enabled to say.
MYD: Battersea and South West London as a place has changed a lot since the 1980s but what was it like for you living in the area back then? Do you have a favourite south London spot?
LH: I spent most of my time trying to earn a living working in community projects and making my own work with the materials that were close at hand and free of charge. I lived in someone else’s house and struggled with most things. The area was ok but dangerous for young black people, who were constantly being picked up and searched. The best place to be was probably Clapham Common (free) and Battersea Arts Centre (cheap).
MYD: This exhibition was essentially art activism. Are there some more recent movements and arts activists whose work inspires you today?
LH: This exhibition was actually an art exhibition made by artists, some of whose artworks dealt with political issues. Today I’m inspired by Theaster Gates in Chicago and Rick Lowe in Houston, who changed whole cities with their energy and ideas to link and empower people, property and art.
MYD: As a visual artist who is now embarking on my first curatorial project this winter, I would love to know how you navigate mentally from the two artistic states (as a practitioner and a curator)? And, as someone observing your practice, I wonder if and how you feel your experience as a curator lends itself to the development of your art? Do you consider them both integral to your personal art practice?
LH: I am an artist 24 hours of the day, 365 days of the year but I don’t enjoy being the only one, so working with other women to make shows means that I can try out ideas by opening up opportunities for us all to push things forward. In a way this is not very different from the way I paint and make installations.
My experience as a curator helps me to show venues and funders how to treat artists, how to treat women and how to take care of every single detail to help practitioners feel as if they matter. I’ve learned that it is possible to make shows and ensure that the artists and the audience is more important than the curator; I try to convey this to the curators I work with. Sometimes this inside knowledge helps them to try harder next time.
MYD: Considering how your career has grown over time, what introspective advice or mantra have you held with you and observed throughout the years?
LH: Try not to die before you have made this show/completed this artwork/told this story.
MYD: We’ll end on this one, because I think with how convoluted the world is we often forget how fun, innocent and all telling the answer of this question once was… What’s your favourite colour?
LH: Well it would have to be orange and purple – that is one colour, isn’t it?
Lubaina Himid MBE. Credit: Ingrid Pollard Michaela Yearwood-Dan
About the artists
Born in Zanzibar in 1954, Lubaina Himid MBE is a British painter who has dedicated her four-decades-long career to uncovering marginalised and silenced histories, figures, and cultural expressions. She studied Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of Art and went on to receive an MA in Cultural History from the Royal College of Art.
She was the winner of the Turner Prize in 2017. Himid currently has a major monographic exhibition on view at Tate Modern, London until July 2022.
Born in Tooting in 1994, Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s paintings reflect on subjectivity and individual identity as forms of self-determination, through an abstract lens. Recent exhibitions include In Situ, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York (group – 2021); Ancient Deities, Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK (group – 2020); Clay TM, TJ Boulting, London, UK (group – 2020); The Green Fuse, Frestonian Gallery, London, UK (group -2020); No Time Like the Present, Public Gallery, London, UK, (group – 2020); Begin Again, Guts Gallery, London, UK, (group – 2020) Tiwani Contemporary (solo – 2019) and One English Pound, Sarabande, The Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation (solo – 2019).
 Lubaina Himid, Thin Black Line(s), 2011, UCLAN p.9.
 Moremi Charles, City Limits, 1983, no. 103, p. 13.