The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Turner Prize 2017: A historic win

Florrie Badley reflects on the significance of Lubaina Himid’s recent Turner Prize win


Lubaina Himid’s Turner Prize victory feels to be the most tremendous thing to happen for the award in years. As well as being the first black female winner, Himid is also the oldest ever nominee, aged 63.

The decision to lift the restriction on artists over 50 was a good one. The Turner Prize’s determination to remain ‘new’ was actually causing it to become outdated. Its desperate obsession with youth, in particular, suggested that it might be clinging on to the glory days of the YBAs (Young British Artists), who temporarily dominated the global art scene in the 1990’s. The term ‘contemporary’ seems to be losing its relevance, as modernity is becoming old news again.

The hindsight implicated in Himid’s nomination is rare for the Turner Prize. Currently on display, her installation sculpture A Fashionable Marriage (1987), is only three years younger than the Turner Prize itself.

Himid’s quarter of the Turner Prize show — being exhibited at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull — recalls the last thirty years of her career, giving due credit to an artist who has been unfairly over-looked. The prize has also drawn attention to the historic nature of Himid’s art at a vital time.

Over the last four years at least, each batch of Turner Prize nominations has been defined by an unannounced theme. In 2014, the prize paid homage to a resurgence of video art and artists’ film. In 2015, the theme appeared to be ‘expanded practice’ as the nominations formed a series of installations and events, all of which implied human action. Last year, the 2016 nominations were unequivocally handed out to artists who were making dispersed sculptures, which enter into the space of the viewer as opposed to the viewer entering into theirs.

This year, however, the theme has not been defined by a certain medium. The emphasis is placed on content instead. Questioning the personal, the national, the global and the post-colonial, Lubaina Himid, Hurvin Anderson, Andrea Buttner and Rosalind Nashashibi all create issue-based artworks that interrogate social identity.

Moreover, the intended purposes of these artworks, and the meanings that they contain are, for the most part, immediately readable. They convey community-orientated messages, which aren’t overly codified or ambiguous.

This is a welcome shift that reflects a changing tide in popular art, and its place within the British identity. If only for a moment, UK culture has torn its focus away from our synthetic future, to take a look at the political and emotional realities of our past and present.

The transparent content of 2017’s Turner Prize nominations is a response to the UK’s renewed interest in ‘Useful Art.’ This is a movement that explores art’s potential to say and do things. It employs art as a tool for teaching, and idealises it as a force that can incite social change. This movement is soon to become prevalent in Manchester, since the Whitworth has recently appointed an advocate of ‘Useful Art’, Alasdair Hudson, as its new director.

In turn, this change surely echoes an even broader transformation: that which British identity is currently undergoing, and has been undergoing for at least a year and a half. The increased abstraction and fragmentation implied by such a period of political transition, has left us craving certainty and clarity. Momentarily, we are enjoying artworks that make sense.

It seems that British culture has momentarily severed its ties with the artificiality of contemporary art. The four 2017 nominations even have an uncharacteristically retrospective aesthetic – reminiscing in the styles of 1980s postmodernism. It seems that our artworld has descended into a backwards-facing trance, stunned by the realisation: ‘We really thought that we were making progress, and look where we’ve ended up… Back at the past again.’