Lubaina Himid review – a promise unfulfilled

The Lubaina Himid retrospective at Tate Modern ought to be momentous. It is certainly overdue – a full-dress museum show for this 67-year-old artist, the first black woman to win the Turner prize, a visionary of evergreen inventiveness and humour, and a much-admired champion of her fellow artists.

Himid’s work is as open-armed as her ideas of what art might achieve in this world. Given a whole floor of the Blavatnik building, she has conceived of this event as a kind of promenade theatre in which viewers participate. Which ought to yield a sure-fire hit. Born in Zanzibar to a white English mother and a black African father, the infant Himid was brought to London immediately after his premature death. Her work is constantly circling back to that lost island, making connections between past and present; it has motion as an abiding characteristic.

And she studied theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art. The traces remain in Himid’s painted tableaux, in the drama of her political satires and the sheer force of her renowned cut-out figures, waiting to confront you in spectacular lifesize pageants.

The stage appears perfectly set at Tate Modern. Embroidered banners raise questions outside a dizzying magenta entrance – questions continued in vaudeville script across the show’s walls. Why are you looking? How do you spell change? What is the purpose of monuments? There are walk-through installations, a bus shelter complete with bike racks, painted wooden carts like props from a medieval mystery cycle and – most radically for an art show – a continuous soundtrack, shifting from torch song to classical music and spoken word.

And yet the show has odd slumps and bewildering intermissions; it is even, at times, uninvolving.

Where are Himid’s satires on race? It feels as if her political art has been rationed

True, Himid is always on the move through her scenes and themes. Architecture: what would the world be like if women designed buildings (paintings of women talking and thinking in purposeful groups, with alternately estranging or lyrical backdrops, but precious few buildings). Monuments: an installation of overturned jelly moulds painted with African textiles on a tabletop landscape. The colour blue: the sound of slowly intoned free associations accompanying a frieze of painted patterns that runs exhaustively through the various shades and hues without rising much above decoration.

The blue of the sea itself washes through Himid’s art from first to last, sometimes as a distant strip of water, or viewed through a high window to disorientate the scene (are we below the water line?). Sometimes it is the dark and perilous tide beneath a boat. In one painting, it threatens to pour straight into an otherwise safe-looking room.

Old Boat/New Money, 2019 by Lubaina Himid at Tate Modern. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

An array of upended spars, painted in marine blues, with cowrie shells at the base, leans in undulating ripples along a wall. A wave of bowsprits, of oars, or high masts – it speaks of migration across the oceans, a tragic history of crossings. Its title is piquant: Old Boat/New Money. But the poignant poetry is undermined by a crass soundtrack of waves.

Turn around and there is A Fashionable Marriage, arguably Himid’s best-known parade of cut-outs, sending up the sex-art-cash-greed of the Thatcherite 1980s. Or so it perhaps once seemed. The Hogarthian figures come across now as peculiarly ineffectual, with their bulbous, stockinged calves and their giant penises; and the pastiche of Picasso’s Gertrude Stein on the wall above has never felt provocative in any way. At least not compared to the wonderful parody of Picasso’s monumental bathers thundering along a beach, reprised by Himid as two black women dressed in airmail envelopes surging along a bedsheet, for a canvas. This remains a far sharper skit.

‘Tidied into a corner’: A Fashionable Marriage. 1986. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

A Fashionable Marriage is so presented that you can go backstage and see the plywood and cardboard that holds it all up. But so what? These figures were meant to be viewed as 2D objects, flat as stage sets, in the first place. This arrangement adds nothing; indeed the piece is tidied into a corner.

A series of new paintings centres on the making of objects. Written instructions are lettered in eye-popping colours beneath images of tools – Allow for Short Breaks beneath a primitive picture of a saw; Keep Moving Parts Lubricated beneath a quintet of pencils. The juxtaposition of word and image feels as if it is telling, mordant possibly even significant – yet the promise of meaning fades fast, after the first optical pleasure.

And it feels the same with her latest double portraits of black youths in fabulous clothes. One man accosts another, who simply looks away; two men stand idle. A man in lime-green trousers points at the hand of another in a tight yellow jacket. Himid’s way of painting uplifts: superbly graphic heads and hands, frieze-like compositions against blocks of soaring cobalt, luscious brushwork, gorgeous colour contrasts.

But these men are dandies in more than just their dapper boots and patterned satin. What are they doing (in both senses) in these paintings? The titles, taken from recipe books, seem intended to distract and deflect. But one of these men is wearing a white mask, of which nothing at all is made, either by the picture or the exhibition.

Indeed, where are Himid’s satires on race, or any of her 100 lifesize figures representing enslaved black people employed in 18th-century European courts? We only hear a recitation of their names. It feels as if her political art has been rationed. The great Le Rodeur paintings are here, with their deathless mythologies of departure and arrival, so graphic in their facture, so enigmatic in their legends of voyage and loss. But even these paintings are distanced behind official cordons.

Everything feels deactivated, neutralised. But towards the end, it is as if Himid herself has given in. If she really agreed to make a bus stop/smoking shelter that the visitor cannot enter, in order to contemplate the question Do You Want An Easy Life, written in faux graffiti, then her own vision has gone awry. Or she has acquiesced to Tate Modern’s curatorial constraints.

• Lubaina Himid is at Tate Modern, London until 3 July 2022

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