A Fashionable Marriage, 1987
More than three decades have passed since Lubaina Himid’s A Fashionable Marriage was first exhibited at the Pentonville Gallery in the UK. A satirical refashioning of morality critic William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode 4 (The Countess’s Morning Levee), the piece throws world leaders of the time Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan into the roles of Hogarth’s countess and her lover - Reagan draped in a star-spangled cape - Margaret in pearls.
It’s unlikely that Himid could have ever anticipated the relevance this piece would hold in 2020, a time when the US and UK’s political leaders bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the 1980s. The fact that it’s only being rewarded thirty years on for its inclusion in her Turner Prize exhibition is distinctly less surprising.
Lubaina Himid explains her approach to art with examples from 'A Fashionable Marriage'
A Fashionable Marriage installation, Lubaina Himid, Tate Liverpool, 1987
A Fashionable Marriage
One of Lubaina Himid’s recurring themes has been to deconstruct the works of European masters. The most ambitious and humorous of her ‘deconstructions’ has been a pastiche of Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode part 4 (The Countess’s Morning Levee). The installation A Fashionable Marriage, comprise cut-outs, paintings, drawings, etc.
Her work is a satire that examines the position of Black people within British society and in particular the art world. Himid replaces the stock characters of Hogarth’s satire with her own contemporary examples: the castrato becomes the art critic, the feeble envoy the funding body and the Countess and her lover become Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan, President of the USA.
As in the image of 1743, Black people are still marginalised onlookers, but Himid turns Hogarth’s Black servant into the Black artist and the Black child slave into “Ka – the spirit of Resistance”, thereby creating a message of unity and resistance for Black people in the UK.
In the eyes of Himid London in the 1980s was a go-getting opportunistic society driven by mayhem. She claimed "Everyone who shook or moved in UK artistic semicircles or political whirlpools was treated as a deserving dartboard." She took aim and threw.
Hogarth was a critic of eighteenth-century manners and morals, painter of theatrical themes, storyteller, history painter. He used black people to highlight the evils and misdeeds of almost everyone he saw. They were signifiers of European hypocrisy and the falseness of white people. Black people in Hogarth’s work nearly always reveal pretentiousness, artificiality and the dreaded sophistication.
The star of the piece for Hogarth is the Countess, who has recently had a baby, so lounges casually at her dressing table, having spent the previous afternoon at the auction rooms, while her husband, the earl, is away. She is having her hair done. Himid turns her into Margaret Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of Britain, leader of the Conservative party, champion of business, destroyer of the trade unions, the welfare state and staunch supporter of apartheid.
The Critic/Castrato sings dressed in an embroidered coat. His body may be mutilated but it is enormous; he dominates the room. His voice is clear, high, false and full of artistry; it fills the room. He is seductive, famous – a star. We need him to reassure us of our importance, we need him to bring culture to our lives. The foolish and deluded, breathless and newly-arrived find him fascinating.
Hogarth links the waiting ambassador with the castratro visually and sexually. The ambassador has his legs tightly crossed, his foot pointing to the inner thighs of the eager listener. In Himid's cut out he appears as the dithering art funder, unable to decide between the critic’s song and the fad of the day.
The transformation of Hogarth’s slave servant, a man in a green uniform, into a black woman artist with articulated arms and an elaborate dress covered in wooden painted fish took centre stage but also partly hidden. She had much to offer and poured it towards the eager listener: her energy.
Himid argues that whilst the ground has shifted, it becomes clear that little had changed in five hundred years, black artists worked for nothing; they still do. They are signifiers of white corporate wealth, expensive to keep, but oh so decorative and useful for dealing with awkward situations and people.
About Lubaina Himid
Lubaina Himid was born in 1954 in Zanzibar, Tanzania. She studied Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of Art and an M.A in Cultural History at the Royal College of Art. She is Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.
Himid makes paintings, prints, drawings and installations which celebrate Black creativity and the people of the African diaspora while challenging institutional invisibility. She references the slave industry and its legacies and addresses the hidden and neglected cultural contribution made by real but forgotten people.
The first woman of colour to win the Turner Prize in 2017.
In Naming the Money 2014, 100 cut-out life-size figures depict Black servants and labourers whom Himid individualises, giving each of them a name and story to work against the sense of the powerless mass. She often takes her paintings off the gallery wall so that her images become objects that surround the viewer. Himid continually subjects painting to the material of everyday life in order to explore the Black identity of Central Lancashire.
Recent solo exhibitions include Navigation Charts, Spike Island, Bristol, UK and Invisible Strategies, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, UK (both 2017). Recent group exhibitions include The Place is Here, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, UK (2017).