Painting is back with a vengeance in this year's Turner Prize shortlist

Spike Island
Lubaina Himid's Navigation Charts at Spike Island in Bristol

If last year’s Turner Prize shortlist heralded what looked suspiciously like the return of sculpture – stuff that was physically present in the gallery after years of empty rooms, off-site projects, films and performance – this year we have what looks suspiciously like the return of painting.

But if you belong to the if-it’s-not-the-Haywain-it-ain’t-art brigade, don’t book your ticket to Hull for the exhibition opening on 26 September quite yet. Just as last year’s exhibition, which saw the prize awarded to Helem Marten, pushed the notion of “sculpture” to the limit, with inscrutable assemblages of found and constructed objects, so the use of media by this year’s shortlist is only deceptively traditional.

This year, the prize’s rules have been changed to include artists over fifty, and the shortlist conspicuously reflects the scrapping of the age limit, with all the artists over forty, and one 62. Meanwhile on first glance, it also appears ostentatiously international, in what feels like a calculated message to Brexit Britain. But this again is deceptive. Hurvin Anderson may be of Jamaican heritage, but he was born and raised in Birmingham; Rosalind Nashashibi sounds exotic with her Palestinian-Irish parentage, but is actually from Croydon. Zanzibar-born Lubaina Himid, the oldest of the short-listees at 62, has been active on Britain’s Black Arts scene since the Eighties and lives and works in Preston.

Hurvin Anderson's Is it OK to be Black  

Anderson, 52, is the nearest to a straight-up painter with his views of that great meeting place of Afro-Caribbean culture and embattled male identity, the barbershop (anyone remember that excellent early Nineties sitcom Desmond’s?). From Anderson’s viewpoint, the stacks of toiletries on the barber’s shelves take on an altar-like appearance, while the hairstyle images on the walls transmogrify into black heroes such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X or are abstracted into Mondrian-like blocks of colour. The personal and the local become political and universal.

Stuttgart-born, but Royal College of Art-trained, Andrea Buttner, 45, is the most difficult of the artists to quantify. If her media look traditional in principle, some smeary-looking etchings are transcribed from the fingerprints left on her mobile phone screen. The scale of her paintings, which might loosely be described as abstract, and their position – low to the ground – are dictated by the limits of her own stature and physical reach. The fact that she is not, you surmise, tall, may explain her preoccupation with themes of “shame, vulnerability and embarrassment”.

Shortlisted artists (from left) Rosalind Nashashibi, Andrea Buttner, Lubaina Himid and Hurvin Anderson  

Lubaina Himid’s exuberant installations celebrate the undersung black presence in British life and culture from the 18th century to date. Her Naming the Money, includes 100 life-size cut-out figures of labourers, servants and musicians in a vast, almost-balletic tableau, while The Place is Here restages a plate from Hogarth’s great series of engravings Marriage a la Mode, refracting elements of the artist’s African heritage through very British satirical traditions.

Rosalind Nashashibi, 43, is the odd artist out, nominated for two films, though, tellingly, she also paints and makes prints. Her films focus on the maintenance of domestic stability in unusual circumstances: among families in war-torn Gaza and between two English women artists, who happen to be mother and daughter, living in the wilds of Guatemala.

As with all Turner Prize short-lists it’s only when we see the work that we’ll be able to gauge its quality and interest, and at this stage there’s nothing to suggest any of these artists as an obvious winner.