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Between the Two My Heart is Balanced
Lubaina Himid, 
Between the Two my Heart is Balanced, 1991Tate 
© Lubaina Himid

Grace Wales Bonner and Lubaina Himid in conversation

The designer and artist come together for a conversation that spans creative living, working collaboratively, and how having an awareness of history might shed light on the present

It’s a few days after Lubaina Himid’s career-spanning exhibition has opened at Tate Modern, and the Turner Prize-winning artist is joined by the designer Grace Wales Bonner outside her show. They’re looking up at some of Himid’s flags that are designed like East African Kanga textiles, which are hanging above the entrance. “This was originally made for the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead,” Lubaina explains. “And you could touch them, so people wrapped themselves in them, ran through them, pretended that they were winning the Olympics – you know, all of those things that you do with flags.” Wales Bonner has some technical questions about the printing of the fabric, and the vibrancy of the colours, which testifies to their shared interest in textiles, despite their different positions in the creative world. Wales Bonner is foremost a designer (who also makes critically acclaimed works of art), while Himid is primarily an artist (who has serious knowledge of textile traditions, which is evident in the way she makes and talks about her art).

But it would be reductive to suggest Himid and Wales Bonner’s work only intersects at the point of textiles. Rather, the depth of their respective creative practices means that crossovers abound as the conversation ebbs and flows throughout the afternoon. There’s the use of music, or sound, in a predominantly visual domain, for instance. For Lubaina, this is something she often addresses with the help of long-term collaborator Magda Stawarska-Beavan, with whom she has made five sound pieces in the exhibition that suffuse the galleries with Himid’s voice, music and the sound of the sea. While for Wales Bonner, trying to convey a sense of sound or musicality through clothing is ‘a challenge that keeps [her] inspired’.

Earlier in the day, the pair were a short distance upstream at Tate Britain, viewing Wales Bonner’s new work made for Life Between Islands, an exhibition of Caribbean-British art from the 50s to today, which had also opened just a few days earlier. For the final room of the show, Wales Bonner has constructed an installation composed of steel pans sourced from various groups based in the UK and, behind one row of pans, ‘imagined uniforms’ for playing in worn by three mannequins. In her characteristic research-led approach to making, she examines the history of the music genre and the people who have gathered around it through the artwork.

Their conversation (which was fittingly accompanied by sounds or music emanating from one artwork or another) spans topics as broad as the material conditions required to live a creative life, to working collaboratively, and how having an awareness of history might shed light on the present. We join them in the galleries at Tate Britain as they look at Wales Bonner’s new work, Rhythm Sequence (2021), before they visit Himid’s show at Tate Modern.

Lubaina Himid: What I think is amazing about your work Rhythm Sequence is how you enter the gallery behind it. I rather like the way it makes you turn around and look back into the show, to where you’ve come from. And I can hear it. Often what I’m looking for in an exhibit is something that’s kind of talking to me inside my head.

Grace Wales Bonner: I’m glad you picked up on the turning back, the reflection, because when making the work I was thinking about processions and movements of people, as well as music or sound being something that transports you. A lot of my research has involved looking at carnival traditions that have processional elements to them, so I like the sense of these characters moving through the space. I’m also interested in how musical traditions move across and between places and are handed down. I learnt that three men first brought steel band from the Caribbean to the UK, one of whom was Irvin ‘Ghost’ Lynch and it’s been special because I was able to meet his daughter and source his original steelpans to include in the work. There are also pans from the archive of the Russell Henderson Steel Band, as well as Glissando Steel Orchestra, which is another group in Notting Hill. I’m interested in the communities that have been formed in Britain through that initial transportation, and I wanted to bring in different generations and the evolution of the pans, so you also get this idea of an inner procession – a carrying on of tradition.

Lubaina Himid: You expect other people to come out of the doorways around the room and begin playing the instruments. And so, the sense that other people are involved is there.

Grace Wales Bonner: We’re hoping to have an evening where we get some pans here and we play.

“I like to create clothes that feel timeless in the sense that you don’t really know when they were made, as if they’ve been found somewhere” – Grace Wales Bonner

Lubaina Himid: It would be fantastic. But I think if you’ve ever seen or heard people play, then you can hear it without them having to be there.

Grace Wales Bonner: I like the potential of it. 

Lubaina Himid: It feels like one of those before or after moments, definitely. And the fabric used to make the jackets – is it contemporary fabric or did you source it?

Grace Wales Bonner: They’re different antique jacquard fabrics. I’m interested in how many people who came to Britain furnished their homes with fabrics and textiles that imitate vegetation found in the Caribbean. Michael McMillan’s installation The Front Room [a reconstruction of a fictional 1970s interior, also on display in Life Between Islands] was something I looked at when I was making my graduate collection and has been an ongoing inspiration. But I’ve also been looking at different performance outfits that people have worn in Trinidad and Tobago and in London, which are very decorative. I saw a lot of print paisley, which I wanted to imitate but in a completely imagined way. And because these are antique fabrics, there’s a sense of them having another life, which is important. I like to create clothes that feel timeless in the sense that you don’t really know when they were made, as if they’ve been found somewhere.

Lubaina Himid: One thing I want to know is what it feels like to be inside these clothes, this formal uniform. How easy would it be to play the steel pans in this clothing?

Grace Wales Bonner: In my research, I was looking at formal processions where people have their instruments strapped to them, so there’s almost a military look to them. I was also speaking to the 1960s and 70s in the construction of the jackets, and how people would wear old army surplus clothing. I think clothes like this can really change your posture and the way you carry yourself. I find that when speaking to models. It transforms their gestures or the way they move. 

Lubaina Himid: Have you had models in them? Did you think about them like that when you were making them?

Grace Wales Bonner: No, but I would love to see people in them. I’ve been thinking of them as costumes for a performance. I’m drawn to sound and trying to communicate a sense of rhythm or a sonic quality in clothing – that’s such a difficult thing to do and a challenge that keeps me inspired. I often look at photographic archives or records of experiences around music. I might focus on a specific musical genre and then look at what people were wearing around that, which will give me more of a read on the sound as well. The clothing is so connected to the sound, and kind of a way of understanding it.

Lubaina Himid: Textiles are a secret language for me. I just think there are so many things you can say with them. Pattern, cloth and texture are like a language that permeates all through things. And, of course, painting on canvas is a painting on cloth that has been stretched.

Grace Wales Bonner: The observation of textiles in your work is really strong. There’s a lot of attention paid to them even in minimal environments.

Lubaina Himid: In my paintings of men, for example, their clothes are not necessarily what these people might wear, but they’re feelings that they have and they’re a language that they’re speaking, which is not the language of words. I’m trying to get a balance between these men. Sometimes a gesture tries to undo it, but then the clothes put it back together. In Cover the Surface (2019), the grip of a glove might do one thing, but the gesture with what might be a false hand or a false face is doing another thing, and the clothes in a way are speaking to each other without words. They’re not clothes, they’re not costume, but they’re a language.

Grace Wales Bonner: So you’re trying to create no hierarchy between the men in your paintings?

Lubaina Himid: I’m trying to get them so that no one is dominating the canvas. You only have to have one gesture or one look out of place and one man is boss. I’m trying all the time to get that sense of holding back, negotiating. And it’s difficult because there aren’t models for it in the history of painting.

Grace Wales Bonner: Do you work with reference images?

Lubaina Himid: Sometimes. I’m looking at 18th-century or 17th-century paintings, or photographs in magazines, sometimes drawings that I’ve made. A whole lot of stuff. In Le Rodeur: The Cabin (2017) the clothes of the two men in the ship’s cabin are taken from a Hogarth painting. So sometimes these figures are absolutely from a document or previous painting. The setup of the six men on the boat in Ball on Shipboard (2021) is taken from a James Tissot painting, also called Ball on Shipboard (c.1874), in which he depicts women together, talking, observing, and every often Tissot has them wearing the same dress. All of Tissot’s paintings are really of maids and clerks on their days off – they’re not paintings of aristocrats on their land. Some of the positioning in my painting, some of the relationships, are taken from Tissot’s, and some of them are completely invented.

Grace Wales Bonner: Are you trying to create things that haven’t been seen before?

“I’m trying to make paintings that you don’t often see. Of men together, behaving in a particular kind of way. What they’re saying and what they’re feeling and what they’re transmitting to each other is the most important thing” – Lubaina Himid

Lubaina Himid: I’m trying to make paintings that you don’t often see. Of men together, behaving in a particular kind of way. What they’re saying and what they’re feeling and what they’re transmitting to each other is the most important thing.

Grace Wales Bonner: Do you have a different approach to painting women?

Lubaina Himid: I think I do. It sounds old-fashioned but I kind of think there isn’t a hierarchy because we’re all sort of naturally negotiating anyway. It doesn’t seem to me that we’re very often in a room of other women trying to be the best woman in the room, the biggest woman in the room… But these women in The Operating Table (2019) have different ideas about how to make things work. There’s the fast method and the slow method. There’s the loud method and the soft method…

Grace Wales Bonner: I like how much influence they seem to have on their environment as well.

Lubaina Himid: Yeah, one hopes! [laughs]

Grace Wales Bonner: When I’m thinking about collection design I think about the environment that characters inhabit – what their space looks like, what they’re exposed to, what they’re listening to, their kind of ‘orbit’. And that’s how I understand fabrics or materials – there might be textures or patterns, like an argyll or a kind of check, that will keep occurring in different places. I then start to break those elements into specific things I can develop – whether that’s a material or a treatment or something. So I have a bigger picture of the world and then extract details and use those as tools to build something else. Do the people in your paintings all inhabit different spaces? What about in the Le Rodeur 2016–17 series you briefly touched on before?

Lubaina Himid: They are in very different spaces from each other – on jetties, in elegant rooms, in a ship’s cabin, and in a sort-of hotel room. Especially in that series, there are a lot of ghosts and past vibrations and past trauma, all to do with feeling the pain of a ship that carried enslaved Africans from West Africa to the Caribbean – a French ship called the Rodeur – in 1819. During that journey, all the captured Africans went blind, as well as most of the French crew. These paintings do not depict that directly, but the people in them are feeling something happening – they’re seeing things that aren’t there, they’re not seeing things that are there, and they’re trying to connect and they can’t.

Grace Wales Bonner: There is a question printed on the wall of this room: ‘What’s the strategy?’ Can you elaborate on the text?

Lubaina Himid: Yes, instead of all that text in every room that says ‘Lubaina Himid was born in blah blah blah…’ I’m asking a number of questions. I’m trying to change the gallery, to take you into a place where you are the protagonist, rather than someone looking at art. With a lot of these paintings, I’m trying to get us to climb in: Where would you be if you were in this painting? Where would you stand? Who are you? What do you think is happening? In Between the Two my Heart is Balanced (1991), another re-imagining of a painting by Tissot, you could get into that boat. In fact, you are rowing the boat. And you can save those maps piled up between the women, or you can destroy them. There’s that choice – which we don’t have – of starting again, of ripping up those navigation charts so that none of those voyages to East Africa ever happened. It’s a kind of fantasy of being able to go back in time and undo history.

Grace Wales Bonner: It’s like you’re suggesting that if you go back in time, you might better understand the present.

Lubaina Himid: The past, the present and the future are not three separate things. But it’s important to take back the richness as well as the trauma, a balance of the two – an awareness of what’s happened, but to gather some strength from somewhere to take things forward. And so, my pieces in the show are speaking to today, yesterday and tomorrow at the same time. Like in your artwork, Grace, with the steel pans – you can hear it, you can see it moving, you can see things shifting and, sometimes, even though those jackets are similar, they somehow seem to be embodied by three generations of people.

Grace Wales Bonner: I really like that you think they represent three generations. There is an intergenerational element to everything. 

Lubaina Himid: It’s really fantastic to have these two shows on at the same time. It’s incredibly comforting. We don’t feel quite so alone.

Lubaina Himid is at Tate Modern until 2 October 2022. Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now is at Tate Britain until 22 April 2022