Review: Lubaina Himid at Walker Art Gallery

Lubaina Himid “Naming the Money”
Walker Art Gallery
, until 18th March 2018

Words, Julia Johnson

While the Walker Art Gallery is undoubtedly a positive institution for the people of Liverpool, what made it possible is usually forgotten. This being Liverpool, the fortunes of its founders and benefactors more often than not stemmed from the profits of slavery. And so this cultural landmark, like so many others, was built on innumerable human suffering. And whilst it takes only a few mouse clicks to find out about the history of the Walker’s founders, the voices and names of the people who made them rich have been consigned to anonymity.

It was in 2004 that the now Turner-prize nominated artist Lubaina Himid wanted to change this with the installation Naming the Money. And it was in 2013 that she gifted 90 of the 100 life-sized cut-out figures to the International Slavery Museum. Now they’ve made their way across town to the Walker not only in a statement of their artistic merit, but also to raise our awareness of what built our institutions.

Something about the naïve style of these figures makes them seem, on first glance, irreverent. As if their purpose is to disrupt and disturb the classical formalism of the gallery around them as an amusement. And of course, disruption is their purpose. You are still free to enjoy the gallery’s art, but you will now do so with an awareness of these people who Himid will not allow to be forgotten any longer.

That concern is embedded in the installation’s very title. Naming the Money: and every figure here has a name. Two names, in fact – their real name, and the slave name given to them by their masters. They have stories, too. In short verses these figures ‘tell’ us snippets of their histories, likes and dislikes. In Room 2, you can listen to Himid reading out these verses, literally giving her characters a voice. She is bringing them to life and giving them the dignity they have been historically denied.

The figures can be found across the entire space of the gallery, interacting with the works on the walls in various ways. In some places they are like additions to the scenes, previously omitted. Other figures are more distinctly separate. Take Lubaina, in Room 4 – being leered at by a Bust of a Man in Oriental Dress, facing the Portrait of Sir Thomas Lucy and his Family. She deliberately works in contrast to these traditionally celebrated works, as an object to be manipulated for their own intentions. There is justice: Lubaina is the first figure your eyes are drawn to when you walk in the room.

Alongside Naming the Money, half of Room 9 features Himid’s series of watercolours Scenes from the Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture. This comic-style narration of the life of the leader of the Haitian Rebellion follows the same theme as Naming the Money. Himid has taken a life about which we modern Europeans may know very little, and gives it life. Life beyond a “glorious history”, which is equally concerned about schoolboy lessons and who will do the laundry. It humanises, makes us curious.

In the other half of the room Himid has chosen 10 artworks by female artists. In her own words on the wall, she explains that these works have been chosen as “deep contemplations on the artist’s experiences of life”. Some of these works are stylistically very different to Naming the Money, but they fit in with the exhibition’s purpose – giving a space to their voices, the female perspective on the small things which is still rare in the art world.

Naming the Money sympathetically and effectively questions the narrative of the gallery’s founders as social benefactors, by reminding us that it was people who suffered in the cause of their wealth. With her Turner nomination Himid’s star is firmly in the ascendancy, and her name guarantees people will come to this show. What they’ll find is an artist who does not let hitherto silent voices be forgotten.