A pavilion in the shape of a jelly mould – with intriguing layers of meaning – is one of the many draws. It’s the work of Turner Prize finalist Lubaina Himid MBE. So what’s this seaside special all about?
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Folkestone’s frontage has a jaunty harbour on one side and a seaside prom on the other. It’s a scene that echoes Lubaina Himid’s childhood holidays in Blackpool. And yet, as a politically engaged artist, she also sees seafronts as places of ambiguity: of
delight but also of departures and despair.
It’s an approach that brings to life the theme of this fourth Folkestone Triennial –double edge. In the words of curator Lewis Biggs, it is ‘to give artists the opportunity to make excellent new work that plays with ambiguity and the several meanings of edge, stimulating audiences to consider why the world is the way it is, how it might be, and how it is always possible to change it’.
Lubaina’s artwork Jelly Mould Pavilion is on the site of a long-gone funfair. On one hand it joyfully evokes the genteel pavilions of the British seaside. She has made it into a kind of grotto: the mould like a huge shell decorated with a pattern of cowries.
But deeper meaning lurks. Lubaina has used Victorian jelly moulds in her art before as to her they symbolise conflicting things: sugar was the ingredient in the jelly so loved by generations past, but it was produced by slaves. Her pavilion on one level is a ‘beautiful shelter to rest and look out to sea’, as she puts it, and on another, a place to muse on history and with the cowries, ‘human currency’.
Lubaina herself is on stranger to edge: she has been a leading light in the black British art movement for decades. Her paintings, prints and installations celebrate black creativity, the people of the African diaspora and their contribution to Britain.
Older artists coming to the forefront in art
Today, at her London gallery, she is gently reflecting on the startling year she is having. Not just three exhibitions – at Spike Island, Bristol, Modern Art Oxford and Nottingham Contemporary – but her pioneering work that has won her, in her early sixties, a nomination for the Turner Prize: the first year that the Tate’s annual award has relaxed entry conditions to include the over-50s.
‘I’ve made work for many decades. People keep talking about how old I am, and that doesn’t match up with how young I feel.’
How does she feel about that? ‘I’m quite pleased,’ she says, with polite restraint. ‘But it’s a peculiar feeling. I’ve made work for many decades. People keep talking about how old I am, and that doesn’t match up with how young I feel.’
We can all relate to that, and indeed, Lubaina’s also aware that she’s being drawn into a story of older artists being rediscovered, including Phyllida Barlow, who at 73 is representing Britain at the Venice Biennale. ‘It’s mildly annoying,’ she says, smiling. ‘No one wants to be reminded that they have more years behind them than in front.’
That said, good-natured Lubaina is enjoying her new-found fame. In her home town of Preston, Lancashire, she’s acquiring local-legend status. ‘People I don’t know are coming up to me in the street and supermarket and saying, “I hope you win,”’ she beams. ‘They’re proud of the fact that I live and work there.’ (The Turner Prize-winner will be announced in December.)
She arrived in the town after leaving London at 36, to take up a role as professor of contemporary art at the University of Central Lancashire. She’s very happy there, and divides her time between the university and her big studio at home.
Lubaina was born in Zanzibar, where her father died of malaria when she was four months old. Her mother moved to London in the 1950s and Lubaina went to school in Maida Vale. Creativity ran in the family: her mother was a textile designer. ‘She’d go to Oxford Street every day to work on designs.’ Something of the colours, rhythms and pattern language of textiles can be seen in Lubaina’s wide-ranging work.
In the early 1970s she went to study theatre design at Wimbledon College of Art, and later the Royal College of Art. Why theatre? ‘I thought theatre could change the world,’ she says. ‘It was a time of Brook, of Brecht, the theatre of the everyday – not theatre in a proscenium arch.’ This appealed to the young radical.
Although she didn’t grow up in Zanzibar, Lubaina’s work is populated with an engrossing pageant of people – musicians, vendors, herbalists – as if an imaginary street. Indeed, she only returned to the country of her birth in 1997, at 42 years old.
‘I’d done so much work around the idea of Zanzibar that was incredibly familiar,’ she says. ‘So it was fascinating. I felt very comfortable there. And other people looked like me.’
One personal response was her beautiful painting Zanzibar – Sea: Wave Goodbye, Say Hello (1999), where two frames of sea-blue diamonds face off against each other, as if swimming in opposition.
There’s a Creative Quarter in Folkestone, with cafes, cobbles and artists’ studios. Not every seaside town of 50,000 people can boast such a place, but Folkestone is different, thanks to the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust.
In 2008 the trust instigated a contemporary arts exhibition and every three years, the town becomes an open-air gallery attracting some of art’s biggest names, from Tracey Emin to Yoko Ono.
Critically acclaimed from the start, the Folkestone Triennial is considered one of the finest such events in the country. But it isn’t simply a pleasant day out for tourists – it’s also a way to catalyse culture and creativity in Folkestone and beyond, and to help visitors look at the town anew. This year Saga is its sponsor.
There are many figures in her work. Do they represent actual people? ‘They’re not quite actors, not quite props and not quite scenery,’ she says, although they would make great theatre sets. ‘Well, I’m a great fan of opera,’ she concedes.
‘The cutouts could work in theatre: you can have conversations with them and also move them about.’ And dialogues. In a 2002 piece called Cotton.com, Lubaina looked at conversations that workers in Lancashire’s mills might have had with their enslaved African counterparts in South Carolina. While researching contemporary plantation reports in Manchester’s Portico library, she saw a lot of parallels.
Now, without being didactic, Lubaina suggests that perhaps it would be better to teach this aspect of British history more, and to reflect on the ever-present human to and fro. ‘After all, some people are here because the British were there,’ she says.
Since the early 70s, Lubaina has been involved in what’s now known as the Black Arts Movement. ‘I realised there were groups all over Britain,’ she recalls. ‘We were aiming to make ourselves visible, make political arguments and open up museums and galleries for all our communities.’
In 2010, Lubaina gained an MBE for services to Black Women’s Art.
Was the outcome a good one for black artists? ‘At the time it was just like “hurry up,”’ she says. ‘But looking back it became obvious there was a movement. I knew a lot of artists, musicians and writers, and used to go to the Africa Centre [then in Covent Garden]. We didn’t have a manifesto, but it helped us become a stronger force.’ This ‘first wave’, she says, paved the way for artists such as Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen – not to mention the current, almost feverish interest in contemporary art from Africa.
As part of her body of work, Lubaina has looked at the history of black and African people in the UK – a past that’s still being exhumed. ‘You only have to look at Hogarth engravings to see black people walking around in London,’ she says. ‘We were always part of the infrastructure in one way or another.’ Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service was displayed at her show in Oxford – 100 pieces of crockery painted over with caricatures. Visitors to Spike Island saw her spectacular 2004 work Naming the Money, 100 life-size cut-out figures, all representing African slaves in the royal courts of 18th-century Europe – again an ambiguity, this time between beauty and pain.
This year seems to be when it’s all come together and dots have been joined.
‘For me, it’s been great to see my work from the 1980s alongside today’s work,’ she says. ‘Yes, I worried whether the art, old and new, would hold up. But now I see a lot of the themes recur.’
As to the future, Lubaina isn’t going to rest on her laurels. ‘I’m always trying to make something better than before,’ she says. ‘I’m not brilliant at looking back.’
Artists at Folkestone Triennial 2017
Twenty artists are exhibiting in the town. Here are just a few:
is well known for his series of cast-iron figures. For the Triennial, Gormley will site two:
one at the Harbour Arm’s Half Tide Loading Bay, which will be covered and exposed by the tide. It will gaze over to the other figure on the town’s arches at the Sunny Sands beach.
emerged in the 1980s as part of a grouping dubbed the New British Sculpture. He’s shown here with his Self-Portrait in the Year 2089. For this year’s Triennial he is making a sculpture called The Ledge, which will reference fossil fuels, melting Arctic ice and its effect on the Inuit people.
creates graphic images of everyday objects. Light Bulb is being installed at the heart of Folkestone’s Creative Quarter, where The Old High Street meets Tontine Street. It’s a classic metaphor of illumination and enlightenment.
is an artist working in many different media. At the Triennial, he will construct Wall, a huge sculpture of steel fencing and querns – millstones quarried from the nearby cliffs. It’s intended to reference Folkestone’s history as a border town, as well as using geological erosion as a metaphor for insecurity.
For more about the artists at this year’s show, visit folkestonetriennial.org.uk
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