Spike Island’s Lubaina Himid exhibition is an immersive study of Black diaspora

Kezia Rice explores the dialogue of migration, loss and ‘unbelonging’ in Lubaina Himid’s interactive Spike Island exhibition. 

Growing up, I had always been aware of Preston based artist Lubaina Himid’s work; with her pieces scattered around my home, I came to recognise her brash, unapologetic yet dramatic and beautiful style of artwork. It is so inspiring to see her retrospective exhibition Navigation Charts at Spike Island, and it makes me especially proud to see it advertised around the city. One banner sits on Pero’s Bridge by the harbourside, which commemorates the life of an 18th century slave who lived in Bristol this placement ironically, and perhaps accidentally, draws together Lubaina’s intentions for the exhibition. As she said herself, ‘it was important to me, given Bristol’s history, to place the emphasis for this exhibition on some of the work I have made during the past twenty years which attempts to deal with migration and loss’.


Naming the Money is an installation of 100 life sized figures that circle around the space, creating a beautifully immersive experience  that the viewer can walk amongst. From the front, they are painted in vibrant, warm colours; some are collaged, some are intricately patterned and some are made with bold streaky brushstrokes, unafraid to look unfinished. Created to represent African servants in Europe who were given new identities, the backs of the figures complete their story with a small five line poem detailing their occupation, name and the name their master called them, which are strikingly repetitive. Lubaina claims she is not a poet, but these testimonies bring the figures to life, especially because of the accompanying  recording of Lubaina herself reading the poems out loud. Commenting on Navigation Charts, Lubaina said ‘I want to enable dialogue through an engagement with these displays and provoke debate about the recognition of contribution by people of the Black diaspora to the cultural landscape’. With the interactive style of display, Naming the Money arguably enables this dialogue by allowing the viewer to thoroughly engage with the pieces.

The central room of the gallery space contains the Cotton.com series, a set of petite monochrome cotton canvases with delicate feminine patterns that reference clothing. The long line of paintings brings to mind the repetitive, monotonous life of both cotton workers and slaves, which Lubaina ties together through this piece that encapsulates how Manchester mill workers supported Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery, despite the mass unemployment they received because of it. The Kanga series is a great contrast, using bright primary colours and loud slogans that are reminiscent of posters or postcards, yet the collages of women that accompany them suggest their lack of identity.

A key influence in Lubaina’s work is her own search for identity; although born in Zanzibar she was brought up in London to a Lancastrian mother and did not visit her country of birth for 43 years. She describes how ‘within each series it is possible to hear a multi layered conversation about what it is like to try to resolve an ‘unbelonging’ and an invisibility’, referring not only to herself but also to slaves whose masters redefined their culture and personal history to suit their own environment. The Zanzibar series encapsulates Lubaina’s imaginings of her unknown birthplace through vast white canvases painted lightly in pastel colours. The geometric patterns seem hesitant, pencil marks still showing, and are overrun by paint drips that seem to emulate tears, or rain, or blood. The dreamlike atmosphere and repeated triangle shapes suggest Lubaina trying to construct  an image of Zanzibar in her mind. The paintings are stunning and by far my favourite part of an incredible exhibition.

As a Bristol student, I believe it is important to be reminded of the bleak history that permeates our city: Wills Memorial Building, a place of joy and celebration when Bristol students graduate, is in fact named after a donor whose money was made through the slave trade. Through Navigation Charts, one can engage with Bristol’s past as seen through Lubaina’s eyes, and I would highly recommend a visit.                               

Free entry. Exhibition open Tuesday to Sunday, 12—5pm, until 26th March 2017. Spike Island, 133 Cumberland Road, Bristol BS1 6UX.            

Image by Kezia Rice.

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