Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service
Judges Lodgings Lancaster 2007
During 2007 the Lancashire Museums commissioned contemporary artist Lubaina Himid to produce an installation at the Judges’ Lodgings. The installations are her responses to Lancaster’s involvement in the slave trade and the legacy that has left in the city.
Lubaina worked with the Judges’ Lodgings to create a 100 piece dinner service to adorn the splendid Gillow’s mahogany dining table. She sought out ceramic pieces – plates, jugs, dishes and tureens – from Lancaster and Whitehaven. Lubaina took objects, with their own histories and added her own layers of decoration. There were images of buildings, traders, ships, slaves/servants, families, plants, maps and goods such as mahogany connected with the establishment, development and subsequent abolition of the slave trade.
Swallow Hard :The Lancaster Dinner Service is an intervention, a mapping and an excavation. It is a fragile monument to an invisible engine working for nothing in an amazingly greedy machine. It remembers slave servants, sugary food, mahogany furniture, greedy families, tobacco and cotton fabrics but then mixes them with British wild flowers, elegant architecture and African patterns.
I bought 100 patterned plates, jugs and tureens mostly old and used, sometimes chipped and cracked, sometimes ornate but rarely plain, from the shops and markets of Lancaster, Preston and Whitehaven.
The buying and the painting took place in the same time frame so the Dinner Service grew organically. For instance I might buy six items, paint them, then buy three items, leave them until I had bought four more items, then paint them until all were complete before buying more. The prices paid vary hugely; some were almost given away and some are very valuable, all are overpainted with acrylic paint.
There are views of the city, plants that always grew here, there are maps, slave ship designs and texts from sales of these ships which took place in the pubs and hotels. I have painted pages from account books, elegant houses, patterns from Mali , from Nigeria , from Ghana and all along the West African coast, these patterns like the paintings of buildings and vistas, boats and documents all cut across or weave in and out of the original patterns found on the old ceramics. On every tureen the faces of the unknown and unnamed black slave servants ask to be remembered.
On every item it’s possible to see large areas of the original design as the new painting emerges or unsuccessfully attempts to hide the identity of the old.
Overpainting has become central to my work at the moment. In the past I have painted over maps, museum postcards and pages from magazines. Now I am often tempted to paint new paintings on top of my old work, much to the dismay of curators and friends, but the idea of leaving parts of an old painting exposed and covering other parts really intrigues me. Several paintings in the exhibition Swallow (2006) at the Judges Lodgings were examples of this overpainting.
It could be that the past needs to be partially obliterated or perhaps its just that there is something very exciting about watching something familiar disappear for ever. This drastic action then gives me an opportunity to challenge myself to making a better piece, the chance to tell a new story while still being able to hear the echoes of the old one.
To mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Lancashire Museums invited artist Lubaina Himid to create new work exploring Lancaster’s significant role in this trade, its legacies and the issues that still have an impact on today’s society
Swallow, a series of paintings on paper and canvas was shown at the Judges Lodgings in Lancaster in 2007