Figgy Guyver (Dazed) presents a conversation between designer Grace Wales Bonner and artist Lubaina Himid. They speak about “creative living, working collaboratively, and how having an awareness of history might shed light on the present.” Himid asks about Wales Bonner’s new work, “Rhythm Sequence” (2021), made for Life Between Islands, an exhibition of Caribbean-British art from the 50s to today.
It’s a few days after Lubaina Himid’s career-spanning exhibition has opened at Tate Modern, and the Turner Prize-winning artist is joined by the designer Grace Wales Bonner outside her show. They’re looking up at some of Himid’s flags that are designed like East African Kanga textiles, which are hanging above the entrance. “This was originally made for the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead,” Lubaina explains. “And you could touch them, so people wrapped themselves in them, ran through them, pretended that they were winning the Olympics – you know, all of those things that you do with flags.” Wales Bonner has some technical questions about the printing of the fabric, and the vibrancy of the colours, which testifies to their shared interest in textiles, despite their different positions in the creative world. Wales Bonner is foremost a designer (who also makes critically acclaimed works of art), while Himid is primarily an artist (who has serious knowledge of textile traditions, which is evident in the way she makes and talks about her art).
But it would be reductive to suggest Himid and Wales Bonner’s work only intersects at the point of textiles. Rather, the depth of their respective creative practices means that crossovers abound as the conversation ebbs and flows throughout the afternoon. There’s the use of music, or sound, in a predominantly visual domain, for instance. For Lubaina, this is something she often addresses with the help of long-term collaborator Magda Stawarska-Beavan, with whom she has made five sound pieces in the exhibition that suffuse the galleries with Himid’s voice, music and the sound of the sea. While for Wales Bonner, trying to convey a sense of sound or musicality through clothing is ‘a challenge that keeps [her] inspired’.
Earlier in the day, the pair were a short distance upstream at Tate Britain, viewing Wales Bonner’s new work made for Life Between Islands, an exhibition of Caribbean-British art from the 50s to today, which had also opened just a few days earlier. For the final room of the show, Wales Bonner has constructed an installation composed of steel pans sourced from various groups based in the UK and, behind one row of pans, ‘imagined uniforms’ for playing in worn by three mannequins. In her characteristic research-led approach to making, she examines the history of the music genre and the people who have gathered around it through the artwork.
Their conversation (which was fittingly accompanied by sounds or music emanating from one artwork or another) spans topics as broad as the material conditions required to live a creative life, to working collaboratively, and how having an awareness of history might shed light on the present. We join them in the galleries at Tate Britain as they look at Wales Bonner’s new work, Rhythm Sequence (2021), before they visit Himid’s show at Tate Modern.
Lubaina Himid: What I think is amazing about your work Rhythm Sequence is how you enter the gallery behind it. I rather like the way it makes you turn around and look back into the show, to where you’ve come from. And I can hear it. Often what I’m looking for in an exhibit is something that’s kind of talking to me inside my head.
Grace Wales Bonner: I’m glad you picked up on the turning back, the reflection, because when making the work I was thinking about processions and movements of people, as well as music or sound being something that transports you. A lot of my research has involved looking at carnival traditions that have processional elements to them, so I like the sense of these characters moving through the space. I’m also interested in how musical traditions move across and between places and are handed down. I learnt that three men first brought steel band from the Caribbean to the UK, one of whom was Irvin ‘Ghost’ Lynch and it’s been special because I was able to meet his daughter and source his original steelpans to include in the work. There are also pans from the archive of the Russell Henderson Steel Band, as well as Glissando Steel Orchestra, which is another group in Notting Hill. I’m interested in the communities that have been formed in Britain through that initial transportation, and I wanted to bring in different generations and the evolution of the pans, so you also get this idea of an inner procession – a carrying on of tradition. [. . .]
Lubaina Himid: It feels like one of those before or after moments, definitely. And the fabric used to make the jackets – is it contemporary fabric or did you source it?
Grace Wales Bonner: They’re different antique jacquard fabrics. I’m interested in how many people who came to Britain furnished their homes with fabrics and textiles that imitate vegetation found in the Caribbean. Michael McMillan’s installation The Front Room [a reconstruction of a fictional 1970s interior, also on display in Life Between Islands] was something I looked at when I was making my graduate collection and has been an ongoing inspiration. But I’ve also been looking at different performance outfits that people have worn in Trinidad and Tobago and in London, which are very decorative. I saw a lot of print paisley, which I wanted to imitate but in a completely imagined way. And because these are antique fabrics, there’s a sense of them having another life, which is important. I like to create clothes that feel timeless in the sense that you don’t really know when they were made, as if they’ve been found somewhere. [. . .]