Lubaina Himid is the oldest artist and the first black woman to win the Turner Prize. She talks to Chris Bond about her surprise at winning and why art matters to people.
The Turner Prize has had a reputation over the years for courting controversy. Previous winners include Damien Hirst, famous for his pickled shark, and Chris Ofili, known for incorporating elephant dung into his paintings. Then there’s Martin Creed who won the prize in 2001 for a piece that featured a light going on and off.
This year’s shortlist was notable less for the controversial exhibits on show and more for the accessible nature of the work and the age of those that made the cut, with two of the artists over 50.
It was seen as a sign that the best known accolade in British art had grown up. This was reinforced when 63 year-old Lubaina Himid was announced as this year’s winner at a glitzy ceremony at Hull Minster on Tuesday night and in doing so became the oldest ever winner of the prize.
Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and chairman of the jury, believes Himid’s selection vindicated the decision to lift the restriction on artists over 50 being nominated for the first time since 1991.
“It reflects well on the motivation for lifting it which is an increasing sense that the work of older artists has been making considerable impact on what we’re looking at and how we’re thinking about art today. I think there is no longer an overwhelming focus on youth as equating to what’s innovative in contemporary art,” he said.
Himid’s work celebrates black creativity and includes paintings, prints, drawings and installations. Asked about the £25,000 prize, she said she already “surreptitiously” helped artists struggling for funding to put on shows and plans to continue this.
In her acceptance speech, Himid said she felt she’d won the prize on behalf of a lot of other people. “I won it for all the times we put our head above the parapet and we tried to do things and we failed. People have died in the meantime,” she said. “For all the black women who never did win it even though they’ve been shortlisted. It feels good for that reason.”
Asked about her age, she said: “I’ve 63 years behind me. I certainly haven’t got 63 years in front of me. Maybe 15 years worth of painting if I work it at it? So I’ve got a lot to do.”
Himid, who was described earlier this year by The Daily Telegraph as “the under-appreciated hero of black British art”, made her name in the 1980s as one of the leaders of the British black arts movement - both painting and curating exhibitions of similarly overlooked artists.
But she’s now got the recognition she deserves with the Turner Prize panel praising her “expansive and exuberant approach to painting which combines satire and a sense of theatre.”
Her work featured in the exhibition at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull contains pieces from the 1980s right through to today, including wooden figures, pottery and newspapers that she has painted on.
The centrepiece is 1987’s A Fashionable Marriage, based on William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode, which features a cast of cut-out characters including a flirting Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. There are also porcelain dinner sets found in junk shops. Himid has taken these and painted images of black slaves on some and aristocrats - some of whom are vomiting at the news of the abolition of slavery - on others.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Himid said she was delighted, albeit surprised, that she’d won. “I was totally shocked. I didn’t think it was going to happen. I was happy just being nominated because it’s a strong show full of really good artists.”
She sees her victory as recognition for the support she received from art historians and others who have written about and promoted her work down the years, as much as her skill as an artist. “It’s vindication of other people’s work and those in art galleries who put the work on.”
Much has been made of her being the oldest person to win the Turner Prize but she doesn’t see it as being particularly significant. “I’m not sure it’s that important for artists what age they are. You have people like Barbara Riley and Paula Rego in their 80s having exhibitions all over the world. So there are women much older than me producing great work.”
However, she hopes that winning the Turner Prize will help raise the profile of black female artists working in Britain today. “It’s not as though black women have never been up for the Turner Prize before, we have been, but it all adds up and something like this shows we’re part of British culture.”
Himid uses her own work to throw a spotlight on the history of black women, something she feels has too often been overlooked. “It’s about understanding the gaps in our histories and how to fill them. I use my art to find ways to broker conversations between people,” she says.
“If it influences curators who think more carefully about what they put on the walls and if it influences teachers and what they talk about to their pupils, then that’s good. Each of us is trying to make a difference in our own tiny way.”
Himid was born in Zanzibar in 1954 and grew up in London where her mother nurtured her interest in art and culture. “My mum was a textile designer and during the week she would show me what she was doing and we would talk about patterns and colours and at weekends we would go to museums and look at all the beautiful things on show.”
A career in the arts beckoned and she trained as a theatre designer at art school and went on to design interiors for restaurants before becoming involved with artists and developing her own work.
She believes there’s a genuine interest in the arts in this country. “I think ordinary people understand how important culture is to our lives, it’s policy makers that try and strangle it, cut it, or ignore it. But people on the street get it.”
Himid, who lived in Hebden Bridge for a spell back in the 80s, points to the success of the Turner Prize Exhibition which went on display at the end of September and has been one of the highlights of Hull’s tenure as City of Culture. “They’ve had more than 90,000 visitors so far which beats the numbers that went to London. People aren’t standing around they’re engaged with the art, they’re talking about what’s on the walls.”
It’s yet another reminder, should we need one, of the appetite for high quality art and culture that exists in the North. “A lot of our greatest artists come places other than London. David Hockney comes from Yorkshire and his visitor numbers are gigantic.
“You just have to look at the great collections on show in public galleries across the country to realise how marvellous it is. The quicker we realise that Britain really is a vibrant and creative place the better it will be.”
The Turner Prize Exhibition at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull runs until January 7.