Modern Art Oxford's latest show, Invisible Strategies, which is a retrospective collection of work by leading British artist Lubaina Himid, truly embodies the ethos of the gallery.
Modern Art Oxford has a clear aim to champion inclusivity in the face of constitutional oppression and under-representation. The city of Oxford provides a particular challenge in this regard; with its reputation for academic and intellectual excellence, an impression of exclusivity is promoted by the University and the history it has imposed upon the city. Oxford represents privilege and elitism in many different guises and this poses a barrier to inclusivity, particularly within the arts. On top of this comes the current state of politics; the director of Modern Art Oxford, Paul Hobson, spoke openly at the preview of Invisible Strategies about the need to show diversity in the face of political figures who threaten the existence of minorities.
It is clear that it is this aim at the forefront of the curatorial decisions in putting on this bold, clear-minded and powerful exhibition of Lubaina Himid's work. Himid is particularly notable for her contribution to the British Black Arts movement, which grew in the 1980s, which she spearheaded both with her work and her organisation of exhibitions. Her artwork shows a staunch pride in her cultural and racial heritage, foregrounding her experience as a black woman in the context of a patriarchal Western society and challenging the stereotypes of black people which are used in art as well as the media.
The pieces on show at Invisible Strategies range from large canvases to ceramics, but there is commonality between these very different mediums. This is in the form of Himid's characteristic system of symbols and signifiers, which guide the viewer on a journey through each piece. She tells stories through snippets of pattern, through colour, through images. It's a playful method; it forces and nurtures engagement with the artwork. Her work can be fairly transparent in its messages - in the section of Invisible Strategies entitled "Negative Positives", for example, the point she is making about the use of black people in the media as a tool is writ large in the strong bold paint adorning the newspaper cuttings. It is a powerful message, stated clearly and loudly: in one cutting from a front page, the white man in the header banner is dressed up by Himid's paintbrush as a 17th-century nobleman and the chain he holds dangles across the article below, where it has been attached to the wrist of the black footballer in the page's main photo. History is invoked and we are reminded to look beyond pictures to meaning and implicit messages. Similarly, the piece on display in the middle of the first room of the exhibition: "Bone in the China", asks plainly "Where are the memories // Where is the evidence // Who are the heroes of black people's lives" as black grape-like circles cascade from atop a white pillar built of bone. Again, it is powerful in its simplicity and its potent narrative.
I would urge you to go along and experience this exhibition: you will come away questioning the world around you in a way that can only be positive. Why not go along to one of the free curator tours or talks to get an even deeper understanding of the context.
Himid's work forces the viewer out of complacency, and the political turmoil we are living through makes this more necessary than ever before. We have to take responsibility for the stories we are choosing to tell and the way we are telling them.