For the first time, a black woman has won one of the UK’s most prestigious art prizes

Under the spotlight, at last.
Under the spotlight, at last.
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

By winning one of the art world’s most prestigious prizes, Lubaina Himid has broken through the industry’s boundaries in much the same way her art has done.

Himid won the Turner Prize on Dec. 5, one the United Kingdom’s foremost art awards administered by Tate, the art gallery group. Himid, a Zanzibar-born British artist, is the first black woman to win the prize. At 63, she is also the oldest artist to do so (after the competition dropped its age limit of 50).

Himid’s art—at times the faces of black women defiantly painted onto fine china—deals with race and gender in European society. One of the works included in the Turner Prize exhibition is A Fashionable Marriage, an installation based on satirist William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode, with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the Countess. Himid used the 1986 piece of a the art world, but also how race exposed European hypocrisy.

Turner Prize: Lubaina Himid wins, becoming first black woman awarded the prize
Lubaina Himid
Image: Reuters/Darren Staples

The installation for which Himid was awarded the Turner Prize is a crowd of life-size figures to show the contribution of slavery to the European economy. The slaves in Naming The Money each have a name, a slave name and a narrative, showing Himid’s determination to explore “the black experience is that of being so very visible and different in the White Western everyday yet so invisible and disregarded.” Significantly, each figure is almost festive in their use of color, despite the tragedy they portray.

“I’m not in the business of making work where I repeat the trauma,” Himid told the Guardian in a September profile as a then nominee. “My work is about attempting to belong, about understanding who we are as black people in the diaspora, how much we have contributed across Europe in terms of culture, building, the wealth of the European machine.”

The other exhibition that allowed Himid to qualify for the prize was Invisible Strategies held at Modern Art Oxford earlier this year. It featured kangas (the cloth worn by east and central African women) emblazoned with disruptive slogans as a message on the global economy through the cotton industry and black womanhood and the Lancaster Dinner Service—fine china repurposed to bring to the table a discussion on colonialism and the slave trade.

Himid, an art history professor, was until now often overlooked by the press and critic in the three decades she has exhibited. This prize, along with £25,000 ($33,600), introduces Himid’s work to a global conversation on race and gender in a globalized economy. Through her work, Himid adds complexity to a discussion that is often hamstrung by how to deal with public pain.

“What I am trying to do now is tell more subtle stories about what it means to have ghosts and traces of crimes coursing through every day and to show it is somehow possible to make a decent life nonetheless.”

Another advantage of the prize is that it reintroduces the artist to a new audience. Anyone interested in a retrospective will find that Himid’s work is at times more abstract. Her exhibition Zanzibar at the Mostyn Gallery in Wales in 1999, for instance, explored the various journeys the artist has undertaken. From her first journey from Zanzibar to England as an infant, to the sonic journeys listening to whatever BBC’s “Radio 3 had to offer and a careful selection of CDs,” Himid put color, geometry and dimension to canvas.

While it’s taken years to garner the sort of attention the Turner Prize will bring, Himid’s is a perspective the art world, and society at large, need right now.