Pentonville Gallery (1986) and Tate Liverpool (2014)
London in the 1980s in the midst of the hedonistic, greedy, self-serving, go-getting opportunistic mayhem was a fabulous location for me as a satirist and wit. Everyone who shook or moved in artistic semicircles or political whirlpools was a deserving dartboard. I took aim and threw.
Hogarth, bad-tempered ambitious genius and critic of eighteenth-century manners and morals, painter of theatrical themes, storyteller, history painter, arch xenophobe, proved to be the perfect ally.
Most important for me, he used black people to highlight the evils and misdeeds of almost everyone he saw; they were signifiers of European hypocrisy and the sordid falseness of white folk.
Black people in Hogarth’s work nearly always reveal pretentiousness, artificiality and the dreaded sophistication.
In 1986 I wished to do the same, although I rather liked sophistication. His theatricality and story telling tableaux fulfilled my desire for spectacle and drama. London in the 1980s was a frustrating infuriating place for me. Experimental work in the laboratory of British art was a full time struggle: curating small shows, writing reviews and articles, creating new work, strategising, sitting on arts board panels and speaking about my work.
The right wing had won; they were to keep a political stranglehold on the country way into the 1990s. At the time it did not seem possible that the reign of the right could last; now of course they are disguised as the left.
The most important reason for my choosing Hogarth to take a swipe at the seething intrigue of contemporary life was that he used the black person to expose the shady morals of the white main protagonists.
The star of the piece for Hogarth is, of course, 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. She is Margaret Thatcher, the first and therefore the last woman prime minister of Britain, leader of the Conservative party, champion of business, destroyer of the unions, the welfare state and staunch supporter of apartheid.
The Critic/Castrato sings beautifully 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 listerner. As a cut out he appears as the dithering art funder, unable to decide between the critic’s song and the fad of the day. Should he support the disabled, the black, the women, or wait until someone else gives permission – the Countess perhaps?
The transformation of Hogarth’s slave servant, a man in a sumptuous green uniform, into a black woman artist with articulated arms and an elaborate dress covered in wooden painted fish took centre stage. She had much to offer and poured it towards the eager listener: her energy. I believed that we as black women artists held the centre; in fact, we rented rooms there. The ground shifted and it became clear that little had changed for us in five hundred years, we worked for nothing; we still do. We are signifiers of white corporate wealth, expensive to keep, but oh so decorative and useful for dealing with awkward situations and people. Black women are still useful spice for a bland post-feminist dish. In 1986 I was full of hope and looking for a fight as we stormed the citadel.
Photographs at Tate Liverpool – Denise Swanson
‘One of [Lubaina Himid’s] recurring themes has been to de-construct the works of European masters; Picasso has been a particular target. However, the most ambitious and humorous of her ‘deconstructions’ has been the installation A Fashionable Marriage, a pastiche of Hogarth’s The Countess’s Morning Levee, which comprised cut-outs, paintings, drawings, etc:
‘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 and Ronald Reagan.
As in the image of 1743, Black people are still marginalized 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 this country’.
The other Story – Rasheed Araeen
A Fashionable Marriage 1986