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Doing Differently Now: Lubaina Himid and the Future of Britain’s Memorial Landscape

Written by Jacqueline Hampshire
Edited by Émilie Perring

In 2011, Lubaina Himid began a presentation at The Monument and the Changing City symposium by asking the question: “Who are monuments for?”[1]  The question seems to both interrogate the past – who have monuments been for? – as well as suggest a way forward – who might monuments be for in the future? Though not always stated so openly, questions such as these permeate Himid’s writing, art and curatorial practice.  For decades, the Zanzibar-born, England-raised artist has created “work that you’re supposed to do something with, or that you’re supposed to interact with and then do something about it [sic].”[2] Though it is tempting to classify her work as either art or activism, such distinctions are fruitless – Himid’s work exists as both.  This refusal to be neatly categorized often comes up in conversations with the artist, who speaks openly about her political goals and her experience as an African diasporic artist working in Britain.

My research for this essay has largely been driven by Himid’s personal accounts and statements of intention.  Having chosen to engage with an artist who creates spaces to commemorate peoples who have been intentionally written out of history and otherwise silenced, including the voice of the artist was essential.  The voice of the artist will be complemented with sources outside the discipline of art history that speak on collective memory and lieux de mémoires. I utilize all of the above to engage with art historian Marsha Meskimmon’s optimism towards the positive potentials of contemporary art and the cosmopolitan imagination.[3]  I argue that Lubaina Himid’s creative pieces blur boundaries between real and imagined, art and memorial, in order to expose how the commemorative landscape in Britain has contributed to the amnesia of a nation that has willfully erased the contributions of people of the African diaspora.  I further contend that Himid’s works challenge the future of memorialization and suggest potential for new actors to democratize the process of creating collective memories.

The Memorial Landscape

Memory is often understood as a process of recollection that happens within the individual’s mind.  Though there is understandably a great deal of comfort in perceiving memory as a personal and individual process, to understand memory as a social phenomenon makes visible how it functions as a tool for nation building, control and resistance.[4] Memory is used to create collective identities and plays a crucial role in formulating and maintaining boundaries between nations as well as the cultural, ethnic and religious groups within them.[5] Memory can serve as a reminder of the potential dangers that threaten our current democracies and can function as visual or discursive aides, “putting the past in the service of the present.”[6] This is an ideal use for memorial landscapes, however, this is often not the case.  The confederate monuments that are crashing to the ground in the southern United States are a testament to how memorial landscapes are highly politicized, contested and unreliable.[7]  This physical response to the memorial landscape demonstrates a recent impulse, among some, to be wary of memory’s role in rousing white supremacy and the intolerance; a reaction that is not misguided.  The United States and Britain are only two of many memorial landscapes that have been carefully constructed by those in positions of power to control collective memory and to promote a single and flawed version of history.  As Geoff Quilley notes at the beginning of his article on Yinka Shonibare’s commission for Trafalgar Square: having to mention that the memorial landscape is politicized seems to be stating the obvious.[8] Though this may be true, until there is a major overhaul of these exclusionary commemorative landscapes, it is the job of scholars, journalists, activists and artists to continue to make visible what historical landscapes have deliberately hidden.

In his foundational text on memory, Pierre Nora introduces the term lieux de mémoires, places “where memory crystallizes and secretes itself.”[9] Nora also makes the distinction between memory and history. He describes history as “how our hopelessly forgetful modern societies, propelled by change, organize the past,” whereas “memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present.”[10] Britain’s memorial landscape is historical.  Monuments and memorials are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the city, glorifying the history of British imperial rule through the celebration of figures such as Admiral Horatio Nelson, and slave owners William Beckford and Hans Sloane, along with countless others who contributed to Britain’s violent colonial legacy.[11]  When slavery is alluded to in the memorial landscape, it is in reference to abolition and takes on a self-congratulatory tone.[12]  These public displays idealize a post-colonial Britain and attempt to obscure that “its legacies and impositions are far from over, and that they remain embedded and inter-twined in, and imprinted on, the here and now.”[13]  It is precisely the “here and now” that critics of alterations to the memorial landscape ignore.  Monuments and memorials do not perform the work of history textbooks and archival research. While they do exist to remember the past, more importantly, they exist as reminders of what should be valued today.  Those who fear that history will be re-written ignore the key role of monuments in the present, or more likely, are comfortable with the historical landscape that surrounds them.  The irony of this controversy is best addressed by Afua Hirsch in a recent Guardian article where she states:

Britain has committed unquantifiable acts of cultural terrorism – tearing down statues and palaces, and erasing the historical memory of other great civilisations during an imperial era whose supposed greatness we are now, so ironically, very precious about preserving intact.[14]

When Hirsch suggested on social media that Britain revisit its memorial landscape, she was met with hostile reactions.  One person went so far as to call her racist, a confusing statement demonstrating that the feelings of discomfort about the colonial legacies of an empire continue to play out in contemporary discussions on monuments and memorials.[15]

Instead of working through the discomfort of colonial legacies, denial and active forgetting has been the tactic of a nation dealing with an uncomfortable and shameful history.[16] The memorial landscape itself provides visual evidence of this deliberate forgetfulness.  Through creating spaces to commemorate the contributions of people of the African diaspora, Himid’s works disallow for what Paul Gilroy explains as “an additional catastrophe: the error of imagining that post-colonial people are only unwanted alien intruders without any substantive historical, political or cultural connections to the collective life of their fellow subjects.”[17]  Her works demonstrate that a distinctly British landscape can and should include the contributions of African people.

“What are Monuments for?”

Lubaina Himid’s presentation “What are Monuments for? Possible Landmarks on the Urban Map: London and Paris” (2011) uses fictional guidebooks to take the audience on a tour of London and Paris to sites of interest where the contribution of people of the African diaspora are commemorated in important public spaces.  In Trafalgar square, a vista currently dominated by Nelson’s column, Himid imagines an enormous sculpture of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian independence movement and the only successful slave revolt in the Caribbean (fig. 1).[18]

Figure 1 Lubaina Himid, Toussaint L’Ouverture – Trafalgar Square London from “What are Monuments for? Possible Landmarks on the Urban Map – London and Paris,” 2011, University of Central Lancashire.

In Greenwich, where the world’s time is measured and the National Maritime Museum is located, Himid envisions a life-sized wooden slave ship on the lawn that comes alive every weekend when children come to re-enact the rescue and repatriation of African slaves.  The enactment also features the punishment of their captors (fig. 2).[19]

Figure 2 Lubaina Himid, Slave Ship – Greenwich London from “What are Monuments for? Possible Landmarks on the Urban Map – London and Paris,” 2011, University of Central Lancashire.

The tone of this performance is humorous, not a-typical of Himid’s work and writing.  Many of the monuments she proposes appear to be impossible feats of engineering, such as the ceramic saucer sculpture she imagines attached to the chimney of the Tate Modern to commemorate the role that Africans played in the history of art and culture in Britain (fig. 3).[20]

Figure 3 Lubaina Himid, Southwark and Bankside from “What are Monuments for? Possible Landmarks on the Urban Map – London and Paris,” 2011, University of Central Lancashire.

The impossibility of the physical structure forces viewers to wonder what else would bar such a work from fruition. Is it really a question of structural feasibility? Or might it remain imaginary for social and political reasons?  Would the Tate Modern sacrifice the visibility of their iconic building to celebrate a group of cultural actors that they scarcely display inside its walls? Probably not.

In mimicking the guidebook format, Himid has subverted the familiar to call attention to the uniformity of the monumental landscape and the exclusion of non-white bodies from sites of commemoration.  Guidebooks are easy to read; they are pleasant and helpful, and explain everything there is to know about a city.  I argue that the guidebook itself stands in for the way that the memorial landscape has been created to be easily understood and comfortably consumed by white Western audiences and tourists who do not want to experience unease as they navigate the city.  This discomfort surfaces in comments made by onlookers that disapprove of proposals for monuments commemorating important Black figures in highly visible public spaces.  Thinly-veiled unease with the subjects is revealed through poorly worded critiques about the aesthetic qualities of these monuments, examples of which are cited in Rice’s chapter on the Lancaster memorial,[21] as well as in comments made regarding the proposed Mandela statue in Trafalgar square that found his hands to be ill-proportioned.[22]  Himid’s performance is a call to action, and it has been a successful one.  Though the addition of the guidebooks is new, the presentation was originally given at the inaugural public meeting of the Slave Trade Art Memorial Project (STAMP) in 2003, which culminated in the construction of a monument called “Captured African” by artist Kevin Dalton-Johnson in 2005.[23]  The monument was built in the city of Lancaster, Britain’s fourth largest slave port.[24]

Imagined Pavilions

The “Jelly Mould Pavilion” project works in a similar way.  Taking place in 2010, the work was a collaboration with the Liverpool Museums Service and was located at multiple sites around the city.[25] The work imagines an architectural competition where African architects have submitted proposals in the form of maquettes for a memorial to commemorate the contribution of people of the African diaspora to the city of Liverpool (fig. 4-5).

Figure 4 Lubaina Himid, Detail of Jelly Mould Pavilion, 2010, Sudley House Liverpool.

The structures are in the shape of traditional jelly moulds, used to contain and shape jelly, and to make it presentable on the dining tables of the British aristocracy.[26] The objects are arranged on a plain white surface and are accompanied by model trees and human figurines to make their larger-than-life scale clear.  The surface of the recognizable jelly mould shape is painted with bright patterns and portraits, a juxtaposition that references the city’s historical connection to the African continent.

 

Figure 5 Lubaina Himid, Detail of Jelly Mould Pavilion, 2010, Sudley House Liverpool.

Himid’s work, which “is trying to fill the gaps in history which is there in front of us but is somehow obscured or perceived as clear and complete when it is not”, calls attention to the flawed and incomplete historical narrative of the city. [27] The choice to stage a ‘fake’ competition plays with the real and the imagined.  Logistically, it seems possible, but its existence as a hypothetical scenario in which Himid has submitted all the maquettes herself creates a sense of discomfort. Why is this not real and could it potentially be realized?  These questions might come to mind as people move around the city to visit the multiple sites hosting the pavilion submissions.  This pilgrimage of sorts encourages visitors to consider a site for the memorial in various urban spaces.  I argue that through this form of active participation, the audience becomes involved in the creation of lieux de mémoires, even if they remain, for the time being, imaginary.

The collaborative nature of this project is important for much of Himid’s work.  In an interview with Jane Beckett, Himid states that “the aim has always been to engage in a dialogue with an audience, to exchange and build on ideas about ways we could collaborate in a life-long project to make the invisible threads of certain historical narratives part of an everyday conversation.”[28] This work positions the spectator as an actor in changing the landscape of Liverpool, in choosing a pavilion, in choosing a suitable public location, and ultimately, in choosing to commemorate the contributions of Africans to every aspect of the city.  To return to Meskimmon, I argue that this work has played a role “in conceiving and reconfiguring the political, ethical and social landscape of our time.” [29] Just this past year, the imaginary was realized.

Realized Pavilion

In 2017, for the Folkestone Triennial, a Jelly Mould Pavilion was built.  The Pavilion now sits on the beach in the port town of Folkestone on the English Channel (fig. 6).  Not only does this particular site engage with the beach as a site of arrivals and departures, so significant to the slave trade in Britain, but the pavilion sits where the Rotunda Amusement Park used to be, a site of pleasure and enjoyment all fuelled by the consumption of sugar, a commodity violently extracted from British colonies.[30]  As suggested above, the active selection of site is an important process in memorial projects.  The choice of this palimpsest landscape in which many mnemonic traces coexist demonstrates a process of reflection through site specificity and lieux de mémoires.  In this case, there is acknowledgement of the lives that were lost in the waters surrounding Britain and the violence of the forced migration and slave-labour facilitated by British ports.

The pavilion, which differs somewhat in form from the maquettes of 2010, acts as a void or container in which people are invited to enter, seek shelter, or sit and take a pause.  Rather than representing a specific figure carved in stone – a style of monument associated with the imperial landscape and historical narrative, this monument creates a space to be filled with memory by those who visit the site, much like the counter-monuments described by James Young.[31]  The monument does not display a specific revised vision of the past nor does it “exist to shame the living,” which as Himid remarks, would achieve little.[32] Instead, the monument provides a space for dialogue and conversation, thus preventing it from becoming grounded in the past and instead ensuring its continued existence in the present, denoting the capacity for evolution that Nora attributes distinctly to memory.[33] In this way, the monument does not risk becoming irrelevant with time as many of the traditional monuments from the imperial era have.  As Young suggests, the counter-monument instead allows for a new generation to “find its own significance in this past.”[34]

Figure 6 Lubaina Himid, Jelly Mould Pavilion, Folkestone, 2017, Commissioned by the Creative Foundation for Folkestone Triennial. Image by Thierry Bal.

Having existed for less than a year, this memorial’s success or failure can hardly be asserted, however, it is reasonable to assume that the two previous works discussed in this essay, which existed predominantly in the imaginary, contributed to the Jelly Mould Pavilion’s realization in Folkestone.  The memorial inspires confidence in Meskimmon’s notion of a cosmopolitan imagination that “generates conversations in a field of flesh, fully sensory, embodied processes of interrogation, critique and dialogue that can enable us to think of our homes and ourselves as open to change and alterity.”[35] In particular, it is productive to consider the memorial landscape, often thought of as static and grounded in the past, as unstable and open to change.  Himid’s engagement with the memorial landscape, both real and imagined, attends to what is perhaps the most important role for monuments in the present: “to honour the dead who have been ignored, suppressed or denied when in peril in the past…[in order to] show that you would do differently now, that you would be able to defend those people now.”[36] Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is to offer opportunities for the creation of lieux de mémoires to those who have similarly been silenced as a result of the very history that continues to be celebrated by the commemorative landscape.  As a feminist, African diasporic artist working in Britain, Himid has boldly spoken out about her “usefulness” to institutions and the tokenism she experiences as a result of the othering of her identity.[37]  Those who have previously controlled the collective memory of a nation have often done so in order to promote a specific agenda that served those in positions of power.[38] Misztal suggests that in a global age when memories so often transcend national boundaries, the role of deciding what to remember should be taken out of the hands of those in political power and should instead be a task for public intellectuals.[39] Though I resist assigning the role of memory to a single group within society, Himid is the ideal candidate to help guide a nation in discussing how to commemorate the contributions of the African diaspora.

Recently, British institutions appear to have shown they might be willing to embark on this enormous task, starting with a small but important declaration that they would do differently now. On December 5, 2017, Lubaina Himid was awarded the Turner Prize, a long overdue and much needed celebration of the contributions of a Black female artist among many others to British culture and a celebration that will hopefully be heard far beyond the walls of the museum.

 

 

 

 

Notes

[1] Lubaina Himid, “What Are Monuments for? Possible Landmarks on the Urban Map : London and Paris,” April 27, 2011, https://vimeo.com/22938970.

[2] Alan Rice, “Exploring inside the Invisible: An Interview with Lubaina Himid,” Wasafiri 18, no. 40 (December 2003): 20.

[3] Marsha Meskimmon, “Introduction: Contemporary Art: At Home in a Global World,” in Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination, 1st ed (London: Routledge, 2010), 1–10.

[4] Barbara A. Misztal, “Collective Memory in a Global Age: Learning How and What to Remember,” Current Sociology 58, no. 1 (January 2010): 27.

[5] Misztal, “Collective Memory in a Global Age,” 26.

[6] Misztal, “Collective Memory in a Global Age,” 35.

[7] Jess Bidgood, “Confederate Monuments Are Coming Down Across the United States. Here’s a List.,” The New York Times, August 16, 2017, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/16/us/confederate-monuments-removed.html.

[8] Geoff Quilley, “Sitting the Circum-Atlantic: Nelson in a Bottle in Trafalgar Square,” in Visualising Slavery: Art across the African Diaspora, ed. Celeste-Marie Bernier and Hannah Durkin, Liverpool Studies in International Slavery 9 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), 155.

[9] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (April 1989): 7.

[10] Nora, “Between Memory and History,” 10.

[11] Madge Dresser, “Set in Stone? Statues and Slavery in London,” History Workshop Journal 64, no. 1 (October 1, 2007): 162–99.

[12] Dresser, “Set in Stone?,”168.

[13] Deborah Cherry, “Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire,” Art History 29, no. 4 (September 2006): 665.

[14] Afua Hirsch, “Toppling Statues? Here’s Why Nelson’s Column Should Be next | Afua Hirsch,” The Guardian, August 22, 2017, sec. Opinion, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/22/toppling-statues-nelsons-column-should-be-next-slavery.

[15] Hirsch, “Toppling Statues?”

[16] Paraphrasing Paul Gilroy quoted in Alan Rice, Creating Memorials, Building Identities: The Politics of Memory in the Black Atlantic, Liverpool Studies in International Slavery 3 (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 2010), 32.

[17] Gilroy as quoted in Rice, “Exploring inside the Invisible,” 32.

[18] Himid, “What Are Monuments For?”

[19] Himid, “What Are Monuments For?”

[20] Himid, “What Are Monuments For?”

[21] Rice, Creating Memorials, Building Identities, 46–47.

[22] Betterton, “Alison Lapper Pregnant: Embodied Geographies, Post-Imperial Identities and Public Sculpture in London’s Trafalgar Square,” in Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, ed. Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Rowe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 177.

[23] “Slavery Sculpture to Be Unveiled,” October 10, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/lancashire/4325898.stm.

[24] “Slavery Sculpture to Be Unveiled.”

[25] “Jelly Mould Pavilion,” Making Histories Visible (blog), February 20, 2015, http://makinghistoriesvisible.com/portfolio/jelly-mould-pavillion/.

[26] “Jelly Mould Pavilion.”

[27] Lubaina Himid, “Lost and Found at the Swap Meet: Betye Saar and the Everyday Object,” in Visualising Slavery: Art Across the African Diaspora, ed. Celeste-Marie Bernier and Hannah Durkin, Liverpool Studies in International Slavery 9 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), 25.

[28] Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Rowe, “Diasporic Unwrappings: Lubaina Himid in Conversation with Jane Beckett,” in Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 190.

[29] Meskimmon, “Introduction: Contemporary Art: At Home in a Global World.” 5.

[30] “Lubaina Himid,” Folkestone Triennial (blog), accessed December 4, 2017, http://www.folkestonetriennial.org.uk/artist/lubaina-himid/.

[31] James Young, “Memory and Counter-Memory: The End of the Monument in Germany,” Harvard Design Magazine, 1999, http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/9/memory-and-counter-memory.

[32] Himid, “What Are Monuments For?”

[33] Nora, “Between Memory and History,” 19.

[34] Young, “Memory and Counter-Memory.”

[35] Meskimmon, “Introduction: Contemporary Art: At Home in a Global World.” 8.

[36] Lubaina Himid, “Monument Talk: Delivered at the Inaugural Public Meeting of the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project (STAMP), Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, on 15 November 2003,” Atlantic Studies 9, no. 3 (September 2012): 275.

[37] Rice, “Exploring inside the Invisible,” 21-22.

[38] Misztal, “Collective Memory in a Global Age,” 40-41

[39] Misztal, “Collective Memory in a Global Age,” 40-41.

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