In an exhibition in Bordeaux, a British artist pulls African characters from the background of European paintings and puts them centre stage.
Lubaina Himid was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania but brought up in England. She was a leading figure of the Black British Art Movement in the 1980s and won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2017.
The installation on show in Bordeaux consists of 100 life size cut-out figures of black slaves or servants who featured in paintings as far back as the 17th century. Having a black servant in a painting signalled the main subject’s wealth and status. As Lubaina Himid explains, "They often provided the entertainment just by looking different and were at their most useful as the greatest conspicuous display of wealth imaginable."
In 2004, Himid took the figures from the paintings and gave them back an existence of their own. They each have an invented name and story. But lest the bright colours and cheerful faces fool you, their stories take the form of invoices attached to their backs.
My name is Walukaga They call me Sam I used to chase wild boar Now the dogs do it for me And they have the meat
My name is Asiza They call me Sally I loved to work the clay Now I sweep the yard But I love the mud
Himid called the piece Naming the Money, as the black characters literally represented wealth. The installation takes extra meaning from the venue in Bordeaux: the CAPC is housed in a warehouse built in 1824 to store the coffee, sugar, cotton, rum and spices that were imported into the city from France's colonies.
This video gives a good sense of the installation: