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8 October 2023

Lubaina Himid’s Q&A: “I’m bothered by my inability to destroy the patriarchy”

The artist on her hero Betye Saar, Match of the Day and being told to “Just paint”.

By New Statesman

Lubaina Himid was born in Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) in 1954 and grew up in Britain. In 2017 she became the first black woman and the first artist over 50 to win the Turner Prize.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being wheeled to nursery in a pushchair. It broke and my mother told me to get out, moved it to the side of the pavement and we walked the rest of the way. All through my childhood in 1950s London I often had my hair ruffled by passers-by as they “marvelled” at my soft brown skin and my dark curly hair. It was vaguely humiliating.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, my Aunty Betty, my mother’s sister, who taught me to read and explained how babies were made. Now my hero is the African-American artist Betye Saar who, at 97 years old, continues to make groundbreaking work. She doesn’t compromise. I have much to learn from her.

[See also: Marina Abramović’s catalogue of self-harm]

What book last changed your thinking?

Amy Sillman’s Faux Pas: Selected Writings and Drawings. It made me realise that it is OK for artists to extend their practice without writing a banal, name-dropping memoir.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

John Lewis, who led the 1963 March on Washington. His relentless work to register black voters was astonishing.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The only subject I could attempt would be contemporary art; I’d do even better if I could focus on the work women have made in the 20th and 21st centuries. I wish I was an expert on cookery or boat building, but it feels too late now.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I am not impressed by life for black women in the past, but if forced to choose I would live in Zanzibar in the very early 1960s.

What TV show could you not live without?

I would find life less fun without Match of the Day.

Who would paint your portrait?

The only person who could even attempt it would be the brilliant Claudette Johnson, though she doesn’t paint portraits per se:she is more a painter of the relationship between the sitter and herself.

What’s your theme tune?

“A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell. Even though it is around 50 years since I first heard it, somehow I still relate to the lyrics on a number of inadvisable levels.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It came in 2020 from my gallerist Lisa Panting. She said: “Just paint.” I took notice of her and have not regretted it, even though many people seem to want me to spend time answering their questions, talking about things I know little about, or doing administrative tasks.

[See also: Frans Hals and the will to life]

What’s currently bugging you?

I’m bothered by my complete inability to destroy the patriarchy. 

What single thing would make your life better?

I’d sleep easier if I knew that the people in power cared about the people with none.

When were you happiest?

I am quite a melancholy person, often brought low by bullies and manipulative types. But I’m happy for some of almost every day.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d have been a lawyer and a poet.

Are we all doomed?

No, as long as we all remember that women’s rights are human rights.

“A Fine Toothed Comb”, curated by Lubaina Himid, is at Home, Manchester, until 7 January 2024

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits