She Won the Turner Prize. Now She’s Using Her Clout to Help Others.

She Won the Turner Prize. Now She’s Using Her Clout to Help Others.

Ms. Himid has long championed the work of other artists. A leading figure in the British Black Art Movement of the 1980s, she organized important group exhibitions at public institutions in London.

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“Tenderness Only We Can See” (2017-2018), the title work from a recent series, carries a reference to Essex Hemphill’s poem “Between Pathos and Seduction.” A painting of a British carp, its muddy coloring transformed to exotic pink and yellow, decorates a wooden panel from inside a piano like a secret message.

Credit
Courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens

The exhibition at Sérignan will present works from eight series Ms. Himid made since the ’80s: All are talking points connected to Europe’s colonial past and wealth derived from slavery. “Cotton.com,” a series of 85 painting from 2002, recalls an incident from the 1860s when mill workers in northern England refused to process cotton grown in the Confederate States. The patterned panels imagine coded communication between black slaves on American plantations and British textile workers.

As part of her participation in the forthcoming Berlin Biennale, Ms. Himid asked the organizers to translate into German texts by the African-American poet and activist Essex Hemphill, and by Maud Sulter, a British artist and writer of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage. In Sérignan, a region where more than half the voters chose Marine Le Pen from the far-right National Front in the second round of the 2017 French presidential elections, the gallery will host, at Ms. Himid’s request, a conversation between Françoise Vergès, an academic known for her work on the legacy of colonialism and slavery, and the French-Cameroonian curator Christine Eyene. (“It will be hard-hitting,” Ms. Himid said.)

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“Cotton.com,” a series of 85 paintings from 2002, recalls an incident from the 1860s when mill workers in northern England refused to process cotton grown in the Confederate States. The patterned panels imagine coded communication between black slaves on American plantations and British textile workers.

Credit
Courtesy of the artist, Firstsite and Hollybush Gardens

Ms. Eyene, artistic director of the International Biennial of Casablanca, Morocco, said in an interview that public conversations like these were important, particularly in France, where it could be difficult to discuss issues of race and the country’s colonial legacy.

Ms. Eyene recalled that while she was studying art history at the Sorbonne in the 1990s, “There were no black professionals in museums. I knew very early that there was little chance for me to get a job in a museum.” She noted that she still sees a tendency in France to favor work by black artists from outside the country over the work of French artists of color. “In France, when institutions do an African art exhibition they will look for artists based on the continent, or perhaps in other countries,” she said. “They’re not interested in bridging the gap between the diaspora and the Africans from Africa.”

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The central panel of Ms. Himid’s early work “Freedom and Change” borrows its composition from Pablo Picasso’s 1922 painting “Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race).” Early in her career, the artist was interested in political and street theater: some works from this period draw their improvised make-do energy from traditions of avant-garde performance.

Credit
Courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens

Two works on show in Sérignan refer to the French context of the exhibition. “Freedom and Change” (1984) borrows its composition from a 1922 work in the Picasso Museum in Paris — “Women Running on the Beach (The Race)” — a reference that in turn recalls Picasso’s own borrowings from African art that commenced in 1907 with the painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

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“Naming the Money” (2004) was inspired by portraits of black slave servants who were given as gifts to the king of France by the king of Spain.

Credit
Courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens

“Naming The Money” (2004), a throng of 100 life-size standing figures, was inspired by portraits of black slave servants who were given as gifts to the king of France by the king of Spain. Each figure bore a sash stating their name and occupation in the court: lute player, dog handler, dancer and so forth. Lavishly dressed, they were the glamorous face of exploited black labor and exotic status symbols.

Gabi Ngcobo, the Berlin Biennale’s curator, said that it was important to look at Ms. Himid’s work in the global context of creative practices giving voice to shared history that remains hidden or untold: “It is here that black artists working in different parts of the world can find a space in which they are not marked by an otherness but rather self-determination.” This year the Biennale borrows its title from the Tina Turner anthem “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” a call for “love and compassion” that Ms. Ngcobo said was reflected in the determined but generous way Ms. Himid has worked “as an artist, curator and cultural activist: quietly, forcefully whilst reaching out to many.”

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