Lubaina Himid- Street Sellers at Greene Naftali

A painting of a person holding a rope

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Posture Master- 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 96 x 72

Rarely has there been a group of people as uniformly elegant and graceful as those who inhabit Lubaina Himid’s paintings, currently on view at Greene Naftali in Chelsea. Entitled Street Sellers, Himid has created a group of large, figurative paintings that pulse with vibrant color and life. These graceful, solo figures proudly present their wares to us–eggs, birds, musical instruments, and fish, as they move through the landscape.

Himid, who is of English and Zanzibari parentage, has frequently reached back into her African heritage to present stories from the history of colonization and slavery. Her retrospective at The Tate in 2021 featured a multi-painting retelling of the story of a slave ship called The Rodeur. In 1819, there was an outbreak of a highly contagious eye disease called ophthalmia. Slaves and crew members were stricken with blindness. To receive the full insurance value of the now “unsalable” slaves, 36 of them were thrown overboard.

Himid retold this story through a series of paintings that metaphorically reflect an underlying anxiety rather than solely the horrific events. The paintings are genteel and elegant. She transferred the setting to a loosely defined vintage ocean liner populated by beautifully outfitted Black people. It’s impossible to tell what era this is, though it is definitely the 20th century. The sense of mystery that compels the viewer to “read” this story is deeply compelling. The horror only comes when the viewer knows the story behind the drama.

Rather than portray historical events, Himid prefers to evoke them. This sense of the fluidity of time and place suffuses the current exhibition. It’s hard to really place the people in these paintings. Some of the outfits look vaguely 18th-century English or generic European; they certainly aren’t contemporary. Himid has made ten eight-foot-tall full-length figures, a painting format traditionally associated with aristocrats and royalty. Perhaps she is suggesting that these hard-working class people ARE true royalty.

A painting of a person holding a fish and a stick

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Fish Seller: Safety or Danger. 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 96 x 72

They could be characters in a story rather than individualized portraits. I scanned the walls to see if there indeed was an overarching story, as there was with the Rodeur series. Himid has a background in set design, and many of her pieces over the years and in this show reflect that. There is a formality and theatricality to these paintings. The street sellers show off their wares, cavort and present themselves to us as if in the prologue to a play. I don’t consider the choice to not individualize the figures as a detriment to the work, rather, I feel like the entire exhibition is a magic show waiting to start.

Himid’s painting has become much looser than I had seen previously, atmospheric gestures and veils of color define the landscape within which each figure lives. She has always been a brilliant colorist, and these paintings pulse with gorgeous and rich color combinations. These deep jewel tones, not found in nature, evoke the imagined world of the Street Sellers. As always, bits and pieces of patterning appear in the paintings. These both define the space and jar the viewer’s expectations of the landscape and architecture.

A painting of a person playing a trumpet Description automatically generated
Toy Seller. 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 96 x 72

The one off-note for me in the exhibition is the inclusion of uniquely made street signs. They appear to be cardboard, but according to the gallery notes they are on archival paper mounted on wood free-standing frames throughout the gallery. Each of the large paintings has a companion sign. One side of each sign is a crudely drawn cartoon of what is being sold in the larger work and a phonetic or made-up language advertisement for that item. The verso is a hidden message that I think is what we are meant to believe that the seller is thinking. It feels forced. The signs occupy an odd mid-point; they aren’t painted well enough to match the paintings, and at the same time, they aren’t rough enough to push the concept of contrast between inner and outer worlds. It’s a collaboration between Himid and her partner, Magda Stawarska, who has previously produced luscious soundscapes to accompany Himid’s work.

Plump and Delicious Birds. 2024. Screenprint, acrylic paint, etching ink. 365/8 x 29 7/8

Nonetheless, it’s a treat to see paintings as glorious as these. The Universe that Himid creates is both Joyful, colorful, delightful, and elegiac. The Street Sellers are a poetic portrayal of an imagined world of the past, yet one that feels completely contemporary.

A group of people standing in a room with paintings

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Install view Greene Naftali

All photo courtesy of Melissa Stern

Lubaina Himid: Street Sellers. Through Jun 15. Greene Naftali . 508 West 26th St. Ground floor.

About the Writer: Melissa Stern lives in NYC and The Hudson Valley. Her mixed material sculpture and drawings are in corporate and museum collections throughout the US. Her multi-media project The Talking Cure has been touring the United States since 2012, showing at The Akron Museum of Art, Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston), The Weisman Museum, Real Art Ways (Hartford) and The Kranzberg Art Center (St. Louis), and at The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton.MA. She has written about art and culture for The New York Press and CityArts for eight years and is a contributing writer to Hyperallergic and artcritical. Melissa has joined Art Spiel as a contributing writer.