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The winner of the 2017 Turner Prize was announced as Lubaina Himid, at a dinner held in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull. This has been lauded as historic, given both Himid’s age and race: at 63 she is the eldest winner of the prize in its 33 years, and the first black woman. Her success at this year’s award suggests that the Turner Prize has experienced something of a coming of age. Since its inception in 1984, audiences and critics have viewed the award as a platform for the promotion of young British talent, but the international audience and media furore has perhaps hidden the introspective nature of works which focus on British themes and identity. 

Himid’s win suggests a reconsideration of the cultural role of the award, and its recognition of the international heritages of this year’s finalists. In the context of Donald Trump and Theresa May’s conservative political agendas, and in the wake of the EU referendum vote for Brexit, the prize highlights global themes of resilience, colonial uprooting and the legacies of the British empire. Born in Tanzania, Himid’s work reflects themes of black marginalisation and misrepresentation.

"Her voice and role in bringing to light the media biases in the reporting of black culture constitutes her identity as an artist"

In Migrations, a collective exhibition held at the Tate Britain in 2012, her focus on the role of diaspora and refuge proved prescient of the refugee crisis of 2015, for which there is still no collective European response. Whilst critics have been less receptive of some of her work - including doctored images of The Guardian for the 200-year anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade - her voice and role in bringing to light the media biases in the reporting of black culture constitutes her identity as an artist. Reflecting on the vernacular and race-inflected language that The Guardian has used, she comments that for her generation this has openly racist undertones. Yet her work, in which she redacts front-page stories by replacing them with images of knives, in my view ignores the nuances and positive portrayals of minorities in the liberal British media.

Her strongest piece, A fashionable marriage, went on public display in 1987. Drawing on Hogarth’s etchings and paintings of Marriage à la mode, it draws contemporary audiences to question the continuities in political culture and consumption between the Thatcherite 1980s and the present day. Deconstructing Hogarth’s work, A fashionable marriage’s dynamic and oversized figures comprised of board cut outs of protagonists -  boxes piled high - and images of Thatcher and Reagan who are locked as flirtatious lovers. It shows the openly political culture of the late Cold War, of 1980s hedonism and consumption - one recognisable to a transatlantic audience today. 

Himid also explores the use of collage, metallic print and pastiche to create a powerful image of a reigning prime minister, echoing the power dynamic of May and Trump’s relationship. The impact is one of vividness and colour that reflects Afro-Caribbean culture, and she is able to convey the circulation of figures in a networking space. Of importance to the overall message of the work, is “Ka”: the goddess of resistance for black people. In contrast to Hogarth, who represented black figures in his paintings, as symbols of western degeneracy and hypocrisy, Himid shows her audience that black culture had by the 1980s become part of the cultural mainstream of western society.

The Turner Award has not gained the international credibility it has sought over the past two decades, perhaps for its open celebration of British provincial capitals (Hull - city of culture in 2017) and its young British art. However, Himid breaks these boundaries, given her focus on the transcultural and colonial contexts of the British Empire. In Invisible Strategies, an exhibition at Modern Art in Oxford, the audience is exposed to her transformation of Picasso’s Two Women of the Beach into iconic images of black women. Although critics have questioned the power of an artistic narrative shaped by modernist deconstruction and allusion to European masters, it does highlight the marginalisation of black history from the visual iconography of Europe prior to the 20th century.

Lubaina Himid's A fashionable marriageFLICKR: 2017 HULL

A more symbolic work, Swallow Hard (2007) marks the 200-year abolition of the slave trade, and conveys the indentured labour and slavery inherent in the export and consumption of tea and sugar from American plantations, and the global trade in Chinese porcelain. Clearly, what sets Himid’s work apart from other Turner contestants is her awareness of such historical and aesthetic context. Whilst nominee Hurvin Anderson also reflects on the role of contemporary black identity (through representations of icons such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) Himid’s artistic personality has been formed by much broader themes of black invisibility, cultural recognition and the implicit legacy of slavery to the British Empire. 


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The Turner Prize – previously described by an ex-Minister for the Department of Culture as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit ” – has found a worthy winner in Himid. Her work highlights enduring themes of war, frailty and resistance against market capitalism, and is sure to have an American following given the recognition of black slavery, Americana and marginalization. In short, Himid’s work reflects an international narrative of humanity’s past.

But this win also reflects the aim of the award panel to move beyond the parochialism and xenophobia suggested by the Brexit referendum vote, and an appeal to cultured international audiences – signaling an important win which marks a divergence to the “exhibitionism” of previous entrants for the Turner prize

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