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Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change (1984) (Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens) the art newspaperLubaina Himid, Freedom and Change (1984) (Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens) ©the art newspaper

Turner Prize 2017 with four shortlisted artists, Hurvin AndersonAndrea Büttner Lubaina HimidRosalind Nashashibi. The works of these artists are currently on show at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull until 7 January 2018. The winner will be announced on 5 December 2017 with livestream ceremony on the BBC. 

For our readers to get to know the artists, HAGAI have invited art writer Elena Dolcini to compare two of the nominee artists, Lubaina Himid and Andrea Büttner, whom were both represented by Hollybush Gardens. In the article below, she wrote about these two artists training background, the minority they choose to voice for, or to articulate their position and visibility in the society, and how the their resemblance in becoming one of the important figures of contemporary art now. 

Text by Elena Dolcini , Edited by Yenyi Lee  

When I heard that Lubaina Himid and Andrea Büttner have been nominated for this year Turner Prize, I exulted with joy, not only as I professionally admire both artists, but also for I had the chance to meet them, having worked at Hollybush Gardens, the London gallery directed by Lisa Panting and Malin Stahl, which represents Himid and Buttner.

I helped in the installing of two of their numerous exhibitions at the gallery (“House”, a 2014 group show including some of Himid’s works and “Andrea Büttner”, her solo show installed during Frieze 2014), and I saw many of their works of art in the flesh; I heard exciting conversations on them and I can say I own them most of my knowledge in contemporary art.

This thanks to the availability of the gallery’s entourage, all people with a solid artistic grasp, humility, and capacity of talking in an anti-hierarchical way –to use an academic jargon – in a friendly way –to use a daily vocabulary.

Background: Theater design and Philosophy

At first, when I heard of their nomination, I thought about their diversity, for they are two women of different generations, countries, backgrounds and histories, all characteristics poignantly influencing their work.

Himid studied theatre design, which appears straightforward when observing her men’s outfits; real or imaginary figures, they are smartly dressed.

Besides art, Büttner studied philosophy, which is evident considering the conceptual minimalism she presents her stories, objects, people and things with. Himid was born in Tanzania 63 years ago and has lived nearly all her life in Great Britain; Büttner was born in Germany in 1972, and has made London her second home, firstly for study reason and then for work.

The blood on the sheet that will never go away

At the centre of Himid’s work there is history with its effects; black people are very often the main characters of her stories, in between reality and imagination. Humans, who are witnesses of lives, habits, jobs, through their outfits, hinting at tales and trades, exchanging goods and people’s identity marks. Himid, who is an artist, a writer, a curator, and a teacher, made protest against inequality the kernel of her art; she tells about “the blood on the sheet that will never go away”, that is not to be forgotten, although art can sublime it (not resolve) and reconsider it toward a change.

History, its facts, revenges (all nouns recalling some of Himid’s exhibitions), the journeys of black people forced to leave their land, the one of the artist departing Zanzibar, her homeland, to England when she was only 4 month old. Himid’s tale is made of visions, in its double meaning: on the one hand, the visible event, on the other, the fiction one. She imagines and paints her homeland, a place where she comes back as an adult and that doesn’t appear so different from her thoughts.

On the one hand, Himid’s work is insular and is often related to the sea, both the African and the British, (“ Beach is a site of cultural struggle, of colonial violence and new-colonial fantasies.” Maud Sulter); on the other, Büttner’s work is continental, nearly systemic, echoing an organic existentialism in between Beuys’ natural minimalism and Italian arte povera’s holistic approach (Merz, especially, who considered daily life and social politics tied together).

Thinking of religion: a superstructure

courtesy Andrea Buttner Hollybush Gardens David Kordansky Gallery

courtesy Andrea Buttner ©Hollybush Gardens David Kordansky Gallery

 

Büttner’s practice often engages with religious themes; the sense of happiness was the subject of a dialogue she had with some nuns who run a fun fair in Ostia – a seaside location just out of Rome –; another time she asked some sisters from a London convent to let her see more of their garden. And there is also Sister Corita (Kent), the American artist Büttner has paid tribute to with her prints, colours and slogan.

In Büttner’s work religion stands for spirituality and interior wealth, for the infinitely big within the infinitely small, but also for the superstructure dictating people’s clothes, attitudes, emotions; on the one hand, it gives men the strength to act, on the other it inhabits and punishes them, if their life doesn’t conform to religion’s orthodoxy.

Resemblance as modern pioneers in the arts

Then, I thought again about Himid and Büttner: two women artists, represented by the same gallery, who have been working in the UK, respectively for a lifetime and quite a long time. At a first brief consideration, no other common point between them seemed evident to me.

However, rethinking carefully about their work, I have noticed a fill rouge which makes them both modern pioneers – where modern stands for a positive and illuminist behaviour – for they use long narrations vs social network’s brevity. They stand against art’s pret a porter, which offers disposable truths and free patterns easily repeatable; whereas, far from such fast pseudo-artistic consumption, both artists tell how art is a difficult and complex dialogue, and therefore, a compromise between the author, her subjects, observers, and institutions. Himid and Büttner explain art as a cause-effect relationship within history and the a-typical element, the hitch contradicting the system and its organisation (and, perhaps, validating it).

I have noticed a macro-theme in particular they both engage with, highlighting, finally, art’s political and social necessity; the invisibility, which describes today’s daily life as the outcome of the superpower of elected few at the disadvantage of the weaker, the poor, the loser. The losers, whose history art must rewrite, as Benjamin said.

The act of seeing and being seen (and their contrary) constantly return in the artists’ body of works, from the titles of some of their exhibitions, such as “Hidden Marriage” by Büttner, or “Inside the visible” and “Seen/Unseen” by Himid, together with the possibility of another perspective: “to brush history against the grain”, to quote Benjamin again, and refer to the uncountable variations of the real.

Andrea Buttner, Little Sisters- Lunapark Ostia 2012 hyperallergic

Andrea Buttner, Little Sisters- Lunapark Ostia 2012 ©hyperallergic

Shame and judgement intertwined 

Himid and her cuts-out, Venetian dreams, smart and regal characters, remind the viewer the real is not rational; quite the opposite, they suggest a different yet plausible description of the historical event. The artist-ethnographer tells stories, without any relativism, of English colonialism from the point of view of whom suffered it: men and women, often drawn in profile, that, as the Egyptian figuration, recall something archaic and magical, primordial yet actual, bi-dimensional yet profound.

On the one hand, Himid describes history from the perspective of the so called weaker; her realm is that of the familiar strangers (to use an expression by Stuart Hall, a Jamaican in Great Britain); on the other, Büttner widens such category, including non-human species. For example, moss, a humble plant par excellence; always confined in the background, it is wrongly uniformed under one name, although it presents numerous variations, visible only to the eye of the most careful.

Büttner’s invisibility is what men inflict to themselves for shame, shyness, or clumsiness; when hidden, they feel protected as inside the numerous species of tents the artist has been drawing for years. Through this practice, she has confirmed the tent as an art object, the spatial divider between a judgemental and vast outside, and an introverted and limited inside.

Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur- Exchange, 2016. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens modern art oxford

Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur- Exchange, 2016. Courtesy the artist & Hollybush Gardens modern art oxford

Art goes beyond interpretation

Both artists are engaged in a men-society dialectic; their work mirrors how to give value to what is without power and influence, only on the surface though, the men who feel ashamed, the hoping yet melancholic migrant leaving his land, the humble who seems not to write history and, in the end, ends up being the creative difference, who empowers events.

The humility Himid and Büttner talk about is the same characteristic they have as persons. They are two affirmed artists, who don’t play the prima donna. They are smiling and pleasant companions, curious about their interlocutors’ life, whoever they are.

I would be very happy if one of these two artists wins the 2017 Turner Prize, for it would be an important sign for contemporary art, which does not make sense if self-indulgent and vain, made just for the sake of it. Their victory would be a wake-up call for art, which, adapting a famous phrase by Marx, should stop interpreting the world, and start change it.

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day”
– E.B White

{HAGAI 花開} 於2014年春天發行創刊號,以集合體(collective)的概念,探尋著當代思潮、藝術、設計、音樂、科技發展、政治觀察,透過身邊認真的青年藝文創作者的著作分享,企圖成為時代的探針,於各領域的交界處以知識的追求為手段連結彼此,以巨大而深層的力量綻放。邀請大家一同來體驗各種不一樣的人事物,用心生活,也希望能創造千種文化於任何交叉縫隙之中。

{HAGAI 花開} was born in Spring of 2014. Trekking through the realms of contemporary philosophy, art, design, technological developments and political happenings, as seen through the fresh eyes of the upcoming creative generation. Through publications, exhibitions, talks and events, {HAGAI 花開} aims to bridge the gap between different fields, and create a cross-pollination of cutting edge ideas and brand new possibilities in our contemporary times.