Lubaina Himid’s A Fashionable Marriage. Tate Britain

Shock of the old as revitalised Turner Prize sets its stage

Much has been made of the rule change that has removed the age barrier which previously disallowed anyone from over the age of 50 for consideration for the Turner Prize. And the announcement of a four-person shortlist of which two of the artists are over 50 shows how important that rule change has turned out to be.

The shortlist has been hailed as the “most international to date”. Work submitted by the four shortlisted artists: Lubaina Himid (born in 1954), Hurvin Anderson (1965), Andrea Buttner (1972) and Rosalind Nashashibi (1973) is diverse and political in equal measure. As Tate Britain director and Turner Prize chair, Alex Farquharson told The Guardian:

It’s certainly an embrace of multiculturalism and I think in that sense it’s reflective of British art and society. The jurists are particularly interested in the transnational, the cross-cultural this year.

Since its inception in 1984, the annual Turner Prize has produced some memorable moments over the years. The prize has brought art to a new, mainstream audience and has arguably helped shape attitudes to wider British culture.

Lubaina Himid

The lifting of the age restriction makes for a markedly different tone which allows space for work to stand on its own terms and for voices to be heard. The exhibition feels coherent and signals a shift away from irony. But there is humour here – it’s biting and significant. A strategy long exemplified by artist/activist Lubaina Himid.

Shortlisted artist Lubaina Hibid. Tate Britain

Set upon a low plinth that doubles as a stage produced from an assemblage of sheet ply and card, is her early key work A Fashionable Marriage (1986).

It feels fresher than ever – it is a riot of texture, colour and, through its sheer presence, immediately engages. As a satire on political relations it is a biting rewrite of Hogarth’s suite of paintings from the 1740s titled Marriage A la Mode. Himid’s version was meant as a protest piece on the political love-in between Reagan and Thatcher – but has found new purchase in light of the current state of US/UK relations. It’s a piece which has again found its place in time. It remains her best work.

Other works by Himid include sets of dinnerware to which the artist has added in paint her own set of slave trade-era characters. There is also a series of similar works experimenting with pages of The Guardian newspaper that have caught her attention. Nothing odd about the depiction of black people in the news you might think. Except, by riffing upon the dominant colour already present, Himid uses the decisions made by picture editors which translate as a reinforcement of stereotypes.

Rosalind Nashashibi

Rosalind Nashibishi. Tate Britain

Working primarily in 16mm film, Rosalind Nashashibi presents two pieces. One portrays a mother and daughter relationship in an overgrown Guatemalan rainforest. It is, however, Nasashibi’s earlier film Electric Gaza, 2014 which captures the texture of life inside the contested territory of the Gaza Strip; a situation about as close as it gets to a ghetto of 21st Century. Shot immediately prior to the 2014 summer offensive by Israeli forces in an act which triggered an appalling loss of civilian life, it is a hauntingly strange and effective film.

To add to the unease, sequences of animation appear to duplicate what would otherwise have been filmed.

Confronting: still image from Nashashibi’s installation Electric Gaza. Tate Britain

Away from the bustle, Electric Gaza ends in a series of lingering shots – one settles on a strip of green vegetation occupying the middle distance. Except it is possible to notice continuous bands of razor wire disappearing away in what appears to be the “de-militarised” border zone. In the next, we are a taxi passenger reversing from a wall blocking the way out of an urban street. Electric Gaza closes on golden evening light that captures figures swimming at dusk in what looks like paradise, except it clearly isn’t. A way out of this mess appears futile, but life goes on.

Andrea Büttner

Andrea Büttner’s presentation at first requires work to make sense. A universal truth is that it’s sometimes hard to see what is hiding in plain sight. Büttner’s false wall floats at the end of one room and appears as though it’s always been there – except it’s made from high-vis fabric used by emergency workers.

Shortlisted artist Andrea Büttner. Tate Britain

In a startling depiction of vulnerability, arranged as a sequence of large black-and-white woodcuts, it is Büttner’s repeating Beggars (2016) which catch the eye. The subject is reduced to a motif, arms outstretched, head bowed, and repeated in different versions across an entire wall. Through its graphic simplicity, it is a raw comment on shame and more disturbingly, the loss of identity.

Challenging: Büttner’s piece, Frieze. Tate Britain

Büttner’s low tables act as props for reproductions of other works that each depict the same subject held in the Warburg Institute (her presentation also includes a series of display boards borrowed from the Simone Weill archive). The past may sometimes have been described as a foreign country, but not for Büttner, it is here and now, the warnings are there to be seen, if we look.

Hurvin Anderson

Hurvin Anderson. Vanley Burke courtesy of Tate Britain

Hurvin Anderson’s paintings, when seen together here in a single room, are a rewarding experience. Lying between the abstract and the representational, the works are beguiling. It can take years for a painter’s sensibility to emerge, and decades more for it to come to fruition. There’s a particular energy and confidence to his most recent Ascension series depicting a lone figure climbing a tree.

These are his better works. The figure is at times barely discernible through the blobs and rushes of brush marks that double as foliage. It’s a universal theme Anderson has revisited over the years, and acts as a more lyrical counterbalance to the more formally arranged barber shop paintings of his Peter’s Sitters (2008/9).

Hurvin Anderson’s barber shop paintings. Tate Britain

The winner will be announced on December 5. It’s hard to ignore Himid’s wit. But for sheer affirmation, visual clarity and the alchemy required to make sense out of desperate circumstances, it would seem right for Nashashibi’s films to win.

The Turner Prize exhibition in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, is open until January 7.

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